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Rhapsody in Pink

 A Barbie doll, looking elegant in a lacy pink dress;
Xinyi Song
Barbie, looking elegant.

It started with a VHS tape encased in bubblegum-pink cellophane. It was Barbie and the Nutcracker (2001), a loose adaptation of Tchaikovsky’s Christmas ballet, The Nutcracker. I was three years old and the movie was nothing short of pure magic to me. Barbie glittered as she twirled across the screen in elaborate dance sequences choreographed by the master-in-chief of the New York City Ballet. Her moves were motion-captured from real dancers to achieve a realistic look. Her white-blonde hair was so detailed that it was one person’s entire job to animate it. And Tchaikovsky's epic score presided over all of it, played to perfection by the London Symphony Orchestra. I spent many an afternoon sitting criss-cross applesauce on the living room floor, watching Barbie dance to Tchaikovsky in a pink nightgown.

In anticipation of Greta Gerwig's Barbie, releasing July 21, I've been thinking a lot about the impact the original movies had on my youth. Over the course of my formative girlhood years, Mattel released seven Barbie movies featuring classical music in their scores. Barbie of Swan Lake (2003) sees a return to Tchaikovsky’s ballets, although no swans were harmed in the making of this movie, and Odette and her Prince do get to live happily ever after. In 2005, Barbie and the Magic of Pegasus loosely rips its plot, but not its music, from Béla Bartók's creepy opera, Bluebeard’s Castle. It’s a story that really shouldn’t be marketed towards children, but any concerns about questionable plot points tends to ease away while watching Barbie ice skate flawlessly to Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony. Haydn’s Surprise Symphony also makes an appearance, as well as Sergei Prokofiev’s Classical Symphony. Edvard Grieg’s In the Hall of the Mountain King, dripping with tension and no small measure of mischief, plays as Barbie confronts the villain in a final showdown.

Barbie as Rapunzel (2002) relies heavily on Antonin Dvořák’s Symphony No. 9, From the New World, for its most dramatic moments. I’m not sure a more cinematic symphony has ever existed – the deep periods of longing moving into intense, frightful outbursts. As a child, hearing Dvořák’s Symphony No. 9 for the first time is mind blowing in its sheer scale and ferocity. I remember thinking I could feel the music in my bones. Returning to Dvořák as an adult, I still get the same tingling excitement in the joints of my fingers.

If you asked me about my favorite composers, Felix Mendelssohn would undoubtedly be at the top of that list. It’s largely due to Barbie in the Twelve Dancing Princesses (2006), which is basically an hour-and-a-half-long Mendelssohn festival. His furiously bright Italian Symphony makes up a large part of the score, supplemented by a few passages from his incidental music for A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The second movement of his Reformation Symphony is featured in one of the major dance sequences, and to this day I can’t help but associate it with pure joy. The movie’s main theme makes a departure from Mendelssohn, borrowing its melody from the Siciliana in Ottorino Respighi’s Ancient Airs and Dances Suite No. 3. It’s the kind of melody that used to send me twirling around long after the final credits had rolled.

I spoke to a lot of my childhood friends while writing this. Many of them grew up watching the same movies, and their connection to this music is even stronger now than when we were children. One friend bought herself a flight to go see the Seattle Symphony play Dvořák on her birthday. Her go-to playlist features From the New World right alongside tracks by Fallout Boy. I giddily informed another friend recently that the little tune we could never get enough of as children is actually from seventeenth-century London. Now we both share a lifelong love of traditional folk music that stemmed from our exposure to that tune from John Playford’s Dancing Master in Barbie in the Twelve Dancing Princesses (2006).

Of course, the Barbie movies aren’t perfect. Twenty years later, they haven’t always aged well – starting with outdated animation nearing “uncanny valley” territory. But because of these films, I was exposed to music I never would have discovered on my own, especially at that age. When I finally encountered Tchaikovsky, Mendelssohn, and Dvořák in the concert hall, their music was already imbued with a rich sense of magic for me. Whatever the future of children’s media looks like, I hope we continue to find new and creative ways to bring the wonders of classical music to the next generation. Bonus points if there’s pink!

Edyn-Mae is a producer and host at CRB.