Paul Dukas ‘The Sorcerer’s Apprentice’: Mischievous Magic

Happy August 4th dearest readers! Its ‘D’ day for the August Alphabet challenge, and I must admit I already had an idea of what I wanted to write about today. So your instalment today is the wonderfully novel piece, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, by Paul Dukas. I’m very sure this will be quite an adventure looking into this piece, as it really the only piece that Dukas is now remembered for.

Paul Dukas was born in Paris, 1865. Unlike other composers I have talked about so far, Dukas didn’t show much incredible music talent when he started learning piano at age 5. It wasn’t until about 10 years later that he started composing that he began to be recognised as extraordinary. In 1881 Dukas entered the Conservatoire de Paris, studying piano and composition. Whilst studying at the conservatoire Dukas became very close friends with none other than our main impressionist man – Claude Debussy! Dukas thrived studying composition, however, much of his work within this period was destroyed by Dukas, due to his perfectionist and sadly, self-destructive tendencies. This seemed to be a general theme for the whole of Dukas’ career, as there are a very limited amount of manuscripts left. However, some of the work that has survived won, or placed him in line for prestigious prizes, such as the Prix de Rome. 

After he left education, Dukas pursued a dual career as both a composer and music critic. Whilst his career as a critic was thriving, after writing reviews on Wagner and Mahler, his composing career was questionable. He wrote a mix of symphonic works, which received mixed reviews upon their premiere’s, however they were received much more positively after 1900. The reason for this change in opinion is largely down to Dukas’ most popular work, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (L’apprenti sorcier). The piece attracted world fame for its innovative use of programme music. The Sorcerer’s Apprentice overshadows all of Dukas’ other compositions, and even the composer himself (let’s be honest most people have never heard of Dukas, only the famous composition). Naturally the piece became a slight hindrance for Dukas, as none of his other works were ever as good, or were received as well as this short scherzo for orchestra.

Dukas completely admired the works of Beethoven, but also French art music, so his later compositions aim to resonate the fusing of these two styles. He completed an incredibly demanding large-scale piano sonata, and a set of variations which by 1902, which critics gave mixed reviews for. After many destroyed manuscripts, Dukas resided in his later life to teaching and lecturing composition at Paris Conservatoire. He famously said his aims in teaching composition were “to help young musicians to express themselves in accordance with their own natures. Music necessarily has to express something; it is also obliged to express somebody, namely, its composer.” Dukas never really adhered to the progressiveness of French music in the early 20th Century. He was lifelong friends with both Debussy and Saint-Saëns, even though they both believed his music ‘was not French enough.’ Dukas passed in 1935 in Paris. For such an intriguing composer, there seems to not be any sort of excitement around him – except for The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. I think its high time we have a look into this piece and see what all the magic is about!

The Sorcerer’s Apprentice was written largely in 1897 and is subtitled “Scherzo after a ballad by Goethe” due to it being based on Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s 1797 poem of the same name. I think that because this work is a symphonic poem and its main aim is to tell the story that Goethe wrote, I will put the poem underneath so the story can be read whilst listening to the piece.

The Sorcerer’s Apprentice – Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1797)

That old sorcerer has vanished

And for once has gone away!

Spirits called by him, now banished,

My commands shall soon obey.

Every step and saying

That he used, I know,

And with sprites obeying

My arts I will show.

Flow, flow onward

Stretches many

Spare not any

Water rushing,

Every streaming fully downward

Toward the pool in current gushing.

Come, old broomstick, you are needed,

Take these rags and wrap them round you!

Long my orders you have heeded,

By my wishes now I’ve bound you.

Have two legs and stand,

And a head for you.

Run, and in your hand

Hold a bucket too.

Flow, flow onward

Stretches many,

Spare not any

Water rushing,

Ever streaming fully downward

Toward the pool in current gushing.

See him, toward the shore he’s racing

There, he’s at the stream already,

Back like lightning he is chasing,

Pouring water fast and steady.

Once again he hastens!

How the water spills,

How the water basins

Brimming full he fills!

Stop now, hear me!

Ample measure

Of your treasure

We have gotten!

Ah, I see it, dear me, dear me.

Master’s word I have forgotten!

Ah, the word with which the master

Makes the broom a broom once more!

Ah, he runs and fetches faster!

Be a broomstick as before!

Every new the torrents

That by him are fed,

Ah, a hundred currents

Pour upon my head!

No, no longer

Can I please him,

I will seize him!

That is spiteful!

My misgivings grow the stronger.

What a mien, his eyes how frightful!

Brood of hell, you’re not a mortal!

Shall the entire house go under?

Over the threshold over portal

Streams of water rush and thunder.

Broom accurst and mean,

Who will have his will,

Stick that you have been,

Once again stand still!

Can I never,Broom, appease you?

I will seize you,

Hold and whack you,

And your ancient wood

I’ll sever,

With a whetted axe I’ll crack you.

He returns, more water dragging!

Now I’ll throw myself upon you!

Soon, 0 goblin, you’ll be sagging.

Crash! The sharp axe has undone you.

What a good blow, truly!

There, he’s split, I see.

Hope now rises newly,

Any my breathing’s free.

Woe betide me!

Both halves scurry

In a hurry,

Rise like towers

There beside me.

Help me, help, eternal powers!

Off they run, till wet and wetter

Hall and steps immersed are lying.

What a flood that naught can fetter!

Lord and master, hear me crying! –

Ah, he comes excited.

Sir, my need is sore.

Spirits that I’ve cited

My commands ignore.

The piece begins with a mysterious atmosphere, which is instigated by the strings. A descending sequence is heard in the upper strings, and this is counteracted by the main theme (just in a much slower form) by the clarinets and flutes. Suddenly a burst of energy breaks through and once the muted trumpet enters reflects when the apprentice discovers some of the sorcerer’s magic. Fast tremolos from the strings and the piercing trumpets depict the apprentice trying his luck with making the magic work on some nearby brooms. The next section is the very famous part, which starts with single notes in 1, which bounce from tonic and dominant. The bounce-feel in this section, coupled with the silence bars, create tension as to whether the magic is going to work on the broom. Thus, the famous bassoon line enters which is based upon a simple quaver movement in 3/8 – though usually played quite fast! I wish I could play bassoon just so I could play this melody. Its fast and playful feel gives this section a pleasant atmosphere, fizzing with triumph for the apprentice.

This melody is then taken from the bassoons and is passed around the orchestra. The off-beat stabs by the horns and pizzicato strings give this section a very pacy feel. The 8 bar phrase is interrupted by smooth strings who are shadowing the chord progression from the beginning of the piece. The trumpets enter with the main theme and the orchestra all come up in terms of dynamic and energy. The quick change from arco to pizzicato in the strings creates a very interesting timbre, which helps with depicting the different aspects of the magic. Another part this absolutely brilliant within this section is the glockenspiel. The part at the end of this section is insanely technical, and not to mention very fast! The high-pitched glockenspiel sound is what I feel gives the ‘magic’ atmosphere to the piece as it could represent the sparks of magic.

This section is soon ended after a trill and then back to the one note-bounce motif. The main theme is back, though this time in the string section. An amalgamation of the main theme and the theme from the introduction is then heard. This section centres around the string section, with occasional interruptions by the trumpets, timpani and glockenspiel. A climatic section grows throughout the orchestra and a ‘downward spiral’ motif is played by the strings. This leads to an upper brass fanfare, which leads us to the next climax of the piece, where the whole orchestra are together.

Very quickly, however, the instrumentation drops dramatically, and what instrument are we left with? None other than the beast of the bassoon section – the contrabassoon! This is a very interesting and amusing choice in instrument. It plays an ascending 4-note motif, which is then passed to the clarinet, before the main bassoon theme returns once more. The bassoons then play a variation of the theme, whilst the clarinets play the intial theme above. This creates a hectic atmosphere, which is very exciting. The mixing of various themes at once is to highlight the mess that the magic is making. The climax is very exciting here and the whole orchestra are playing in their top ranges on a trill. The orchestra then explode into the main theme all together and the loud dynamic represent the strong magic – which is obviously in charge of the apprentice (and not the other way around!).

Fast passage work by the string section bring the piece into a brass-led explosion of sound (this is supposed to represent the sorcerer speaking the magic and stopping the brooms from cleaning). Again, the mood drops and the strings play a short pizzicato section. The bounce theme tries to return, however the strings enter with the introductory passage, which creates the mysterious atmosphere once more. The viola leads the main melody at times in this section which is loves to hear as its slightly lower timbre mixes well at the forefront. To end the piece and break the tension created, the whole orchestra play a 4-chord ascending scale. The 4 notes at the end here supposedly represent the number of disciplinary strokes the sorcerer has given to the mischievous apprentice. With the various changes in tempo, it reiterates the story of the young apprentice trying the magic, but losing control of it very quickly. After chopping up the broom, he realises the work is done twice as fast (hence the different tempo changes).

The story telling within this short piece is so incredibly graphic, which is no wonder why it is so popular. The way that Dukas has utilised the orchestra is very clever and the use of different instrumentation to create different timbres to represent the different sections of the story is very pleasing to listen to. I am a massive fan of this piece as its fun, but also incredibly intricate and when done well it sounds absolutely fantastic. A lot of you may know this piece from Disney’s film Fantasia. The piece was already a concert-hall success, however, its appearance in this film made it even more popular to other audiences. The story is depicted by Micky Mouse (I have added the video below if you fancy a watch!). I do hope that you have enjoyed this magical journey we’ve been on today – do come back tomorrow to see what day ‘E’ has in store!

This blog is dedicated to not only an incredibly talented bassoon player, but a very good friend of mine – Jonathan Taylor-Mew. I hope you enjoy this blog and the piece! Viva la Bassoon!

Happy reading!

Recommended Recording:

This is a fantastic recording from the Russian Philharmonic Orchestra!

Here is The Sorcerer’s Apprentice in Disney’s Fantasia.