Dukas: Sorcerer’s Apprentice

Dukas was a French composer who studied harmony and composition at the Paris Conservatory where he associated with Debussy and Ravel and later became professor of composition. The Sorcerer’s Apprentice is a vivid descriptive symphonic scherzo, which is one of his best-known orchestral pieces. Although giving the impression of a moderate tempo, it is in fact written as a very fast 1 in a bar, which expands the music on the page, and adds considerably to the difficultly of playing it! It was written in 1897 at a time when the artistic movement of Impressionism had begun to exert its influence on music. It is based on the poem “Der Zauberlehrling” (The Sorcerer’s Apprentice) by the German poet, Goethe, which interprets an old fairy tale about an apprentice who causes chaos by using his sorcerer’s powers to invoke magic that he is then unable to control. [Part of the magic of the piece is in the fabulous part that has been given to the bassoons!]

The piece became even more famous when Walt Disney decided to include his star, Mickey Mouse, in a dazzling representation of the story in the film Fantasia in 1938. The music for the film was conducted by Leopold Stokowski of the Philadelphia Orchestra, who once remarked: “The beauty and inspiration of music must not be restricted to a privileged few but made available to every man, woman and child. That is why great music associated with motion pictures is so important, because motion pictures reach millions all over the world”.

Curiously, in his early forties, whilst still composing, Dukas stopped publishing, and before his death he burnt the majority of the products of his labour, thereby robbing the world of a great part of his creative work.