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Paul Dukas and The Sorcerer’s Apprentice


     Paul Abraham Dukas (October 1, 1865–May 17, 1935) was a French composer, critic, scholar, and teacher whose fame rests on a single orchestral work, the dazzling, ingenious L’Apprenti sorcier (1897; The Sorcerer’s Apprentice).  Dukas was born in Paris, France, on Oct. 1, 1865, the second son in a Jewish family of three children.  His father, Jules Dukas, was a banker, and his mother, Eugénie, was a capable pianist.   When Dukas was five years old, his mother died giving birth to her third child, Marguerite-Lucie.   Dukas took piano lessons, but showed no unusual musical talent until he was 14 when he began to compose while recovering from an illness.  He entered the Conservatoire de Paris at the end of 1881, aged 16, and studied piano with Georges Mathias, harmony with Théodore Dubois, and composition with Ernest Guiraud.   Also, he had good experience learning under Hugo de Senger.   Among his fellow students was Claude Debussy, with whom Dukas formed a close friendship.  Two early overtures survive from this period, Goetz de Berlichingen (1883) and Le Roi Lear (1883). The manuscript of the latter was rediscovered in the 1990s and the work was performed for the first time in 1995.

Dukas won several prizes, including the second place in the Conservatoire’s most prestigious award, the Prix de Rome, for his cantata Velléda in 1888.  Disappointed at his failure to win the top prize, he left the Conservatoire in 1889.  After compulsory military service he began a dual career as a composer and a music critic.  His Parisian debut as composer was a performance of his overture Polyeucte, written in 1891 and premiered by Charles Lamoureux and his Orchestre Lamoureux in January, 1892. Based on a tragedy by Corneille, the work, like many French works of the period, shows the influence of Wagner, but is coherent and displays some individuality.  This established his position among the younger French composers.  Dukas’s career as a critic began in 1892 with a review of Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen conducted by Gustav Mahler at Covent Garden in London.  His review was published in La Revue Hebdomadaire; he later wrote also for Minerva, La Chronique des Arts, Gazette des Beaux-Arts and Le Courrier Musical.

After Polyeucte, Dukas began writing an opera in 1892. He wrote his own libretto, Horn et Riemenhild, but he composed only one act.  The Symphony in C major was composed in 1895–96, when Dukas was in his early 30s. It is dedicated to Paul Vidal, and had its first performance in January 1896, under the direction of the dedicatee.  Like Franck’s only symphony, Dukas’s is in three movements rather than the conventional four. The work received a mixed reception at its first performance. The symphony was followed by another orchestral work, by far the best known of Dukas’s compositions, his scherzo for orchestra, L’apprenti sorcier (The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, 1897), a short piece lasting for between 10 and 12 minutes in performance, based on Goethe’s poem “Der Zauberlehrling.”

In 1899 Dukas turned once again to operatic composition. His second attempt, L’arbre de science, was abandoned, incomplete, but in the same year he began work on his one completed opera, Ariane et Barbe-bleue (Ariadne and Bluebeard).  The work is a setting of a libretto by Maurice Maeterlinck.  In the decade after L’apprenti sorcier, Dukas completed two complex and technically demanding large-scale works for solo piano: the Piano Sonata (1901), dedicated to Saint-Saëns, and Variations, Interlude and Finale on a Theme by Rameau (1902). There are also two smaller works for piano solo. Dukas worked on Ariane et Barbe-bleue for seven years and it was produced at the Opéra-Comique in 1907.  A master of orchestration, Dukas was from 1910 to 1912 professor of the orchestral class at the Paris Conservatory.  His last major work was the sumptuous oriental ballet La Péri (1912), written for the Russian-French dancer Natalia Trouhanova, who starred in the first performance at the Châtelet in 1912.

In 1916, Dukas married Suzanne Pereyra (1883-1947), who was of Portuguese descent. They had one child, a daughter Adrienne-Thérèse, born in December 1919.  After La Péri, Dukas completed no new large-scale compositions.  After several years of silence, in 1920 he produced a tribute to his friend Debussy in the form of La plainte, au loin, du faune… for piano, which was followed by Amours, a setting of a sonnet by Pierre de Ronsard, for voice and piano, published in 1924 to mark the four hundredth anniversary of the poet’s birth.  In the last years of his life, Dukas became well known as a teacher of composition. When Charles-Marie Widor retired as professor of composition at the Paris Conservatoire in 1927, Dukas was appointed in his place.   He also taught at the École Normale de Musique in Paris. His many students included Jehan Alain, Elsa Barraine, Yvonne Desportes, Francis Chagrin, Carlos Chávez, Maurice Duruflé, Georges Hugon, Jean Langlais, Olivier Messiaen, Manuel Ponce, Joaquín Rodrigo, David Van Vactor and Xian Xinghai.   In the last year of his life Dukas was elected to membership of the Académie des Beaux-Arts. Shortly before his death he had been working on a symphonic poem inspired by Shakespeare’s The Tempest.  A few weeks before his death, he destroyed several of his musical manuscripts. Dukas died in Paris on May 17, 1935, aged 69.

Dukas was a noted composer whose works were comprised of the overlapping elements of Romantic and Modern periods. Though adhering to neither the progressive or conservative factions among French musicians of the era, Dukas had the friendship and respect of both.  Also, he collaborated with the Paris publishing firm of Durand in preparing modern editions of some of the works of Jean-Philippe Rameau, François Couperin, and Domenico Scarlatti, and of the piano works of Beethoven.  Although Dukas wrote a fair amount of music, he was a perfectionist and destroyed many of his pieces out of dissatisfaction with them.  Only a few of his compositions remain.  Highly self-critical, after 1912 he ceased publishing his compositions.  His best known work is the orchestral piece The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (L’apprenti sorcier), the fame of which has eclipsed that of his other surviving works.   The rest of his output, which was never large owing to his own strict censorship of his works, was mainly dramatic and program music and compositions for piano.

The following works by Paul Dukas are contained in my collection:

La Peri (1912): Fanfare and Poeme Danse.

The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (1897).

Symphony in CM (1897).

—material selected, adapted, and edited from several different sources


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