Paul Dukas: L’apprenti sorcier

performed by Erich Kunzel and the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra, or in the version from Fantasia, by Leopold Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra (which cannot be embedded)

Famous to a fault? Cliché? Overdone?

This is one of those pieces that, like, I would probably laugh if I heard in the concert hall, but really… Paul Dukas didn’t write with Mickey Mouse in mind. In fact, it’s a shame that this is one of the only works (if not THE only work) of Dukas that most people can comment on or have ever heard. He wrote a symphony, a piano sonata, among other chamber works, and he was even the teacher of one Olivier Messiaen, but it seems he is destined to be known by the world as the composer of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice

Subtitled “Scherzo after a ballad by Goethe”, the piece was based on Johann Wolfgang von Goethe‘s 1797 poem of the same name. By far the most performed and recorded of Dukas’s works, its notable appearance in the Walt Disney 1940 animated film Fantasia has led to the piece becoming widely known to audiences outside the classical concert hall.

Indeed. It’s a shame that people have heard and seen this work so much that it’s almost become kind of… as if it isn’t taken seriously anymore, that soundtrack to the cartoon, but it really is an incredibly effective, well-executed example of programmatic music. Like some of the examples we’ve talked about from Strauss, Sibelius and Dvořák, Dukas sticks quite close to his source material, and Wikipedia even says that “It was customary, in fact, to publish the poem as part of the orchestral score.” Different than going along with the program notes, but one can see how it would be an influence to the interpreter of the work.

from the Wikipedia article

This motif is used incredibly effectively throughout the entire work, at different tempi, with different energies, sometimes in stops and starts, just the first two intervals (a fifth and an octave), an unassured beginning, a sneaky look around the corner. What is there to say about this piece that really can’t be understood from listening to it, or just watching the Fantasia cartoon? It’s actually the mascot of the series, with Mickey Mouse dressed in his pointy hat and cloak, who sophomorically calls the broom to action to finish his own chores, while forgetting that he doesn’t know how to bring everything to a stop and creates a large mess. Lesson to be learned?

There is some disagreement as to the teacher’s response when he finds that his apprentice has gotten himself into a bit of a pickle. Wikipedia tells me that in the Disney version, the apprentice gets a scolding, while in the original Goethe, he does not. Other variations tell that the instructor only laughs at his apprentice or chuckles at the mess he’s caused, before fixing it himself.

The Disney adaptation is an illustration (in more ways than one) of how wonderful this piece is written, how vividly it calls to mind the images of its source material. While some works, like Sibelius’ En Saga or Spring Song only have a vague, kind of general idea with no concrete programme, it’s works like this one (and Strauss’s Don Juan, I think would work SO well too) that show us something, something that even the least engaged, most inexperienced listener can grab onto. The use of the above motif in its various forms, cacophonous and roaring and chaotic, or soft, elusive and peeking around corners.

I feel like there’s really nothing left to say about this piece. Just listen to it. It speaks for itself, and unless you’ve been under some rock somewhere for the past few decades, you know it. If you don’t, then here you are. Enjoy.


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