The Sorcerer's Apprentice
piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 3 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 4 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, percussion, harp, strings
First performance: May 18, 1897, Société Nationale de Musique, Paris. Paul Dukas, conductor.
Paul Dukas wrote The Sorcerer’s Apprentice shortly after completing his First Symphony—perhaps as a respite, since he completed it in a fairly short time, taking inspiration from one of Goethe’s lighter, folk-inspired poems, Der Zauberlehrling. The symphonic poem was almost immediately premiered at the Societé Nationale de Musique, with the composer conducting, and it rapidly rose to its current popular status. Co-founded in 1871 by Saint-Saëns and Romain Bussine, the mission of the Societé Nationale de Musique, under the motto Ars gallica, was to promote “serious musical works” that “reveal elevated and artistic aspirations.” The Sorcerer’s Apprentice might seem a tad frivolous compared to these lofty goals (particularly if one is picturing Mickey Mouse as the apprentice in the 1940 film “Fantasia”), but it does demonstrate Dukas’s precision as an orchestrator and his obsessive approach to form.
Following the narrative of Goethe’s poem closely, Dukas begins with the peaceful state in which the sorcerer leaves his workshop. Airy, mysterious chords in the muted strings and flutes pull back the curtain on the symphonic scene, introducing our protagonist: a single melody of intertwined clarinet, oboe, and flute, carefully limned with glassy harmonics from the harp. Whether we hear this melody as the apprentice, the broom he enchants to carry his water pails, or the magic itself, it appears in many guises throughout this monothematic work. A single crack from the timpani (a bolt of magic?) heralds the theme’s first reincarnation as a waddling triple-time march that, as it relentlessly proceeds, triggers cascading string lines, evoking the water that eventually floods the chamber. When the apprentice desperately hacks at the broom with an axe, heard as crashing cymbals, it replicates itself, and we hear fragments of theme rushing faster and faster. (Goethe specifies that the proliferating brooms work at double the pace.) After the sorcerer returns and halts the chaos, we hear a hesitant, groaning version of the theme in the bassoon as he commands the broom back to its corner, to await only the command of the master from now on. Fittingly, Dukas would later teach orchestration at the Paris Conservatoire before succeeding Charles-Marie Widor as Professor of Composition. While his perfectionism was a boon to his students, among them Olivier Messiaen and Maurice Duruflé (a friend of Frederick Swann), it foreshortened his own compositional career. Dukas withheld his compositions after the 1912 ballet La Péri and burned the manuscripts shortly before his death.