Beyond Mickey

by Benjamin Pomerance

Yes — this is the piece with Mickey and the brooms. If there was ever a moment to give a classical composer contemporary immortality, it was the sight of Walt Disney’s beloved mouse grappling with an ever-expanding armada of water-carrying sweepers in the animated film Fantasia. Thus has been the fate of Frenchman Paul Dukas, the compositional architect of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice: inexorably linked with a cartoon-generated rodent.

To be fair, there are worse destinies for an artist. Fantasia evolved into a modern creative highlight, an appealing blend of venerable compositions with cutting-edge technologies. And possibly the most enduring scene from the entire movie is that sequence with the brooms, the vintage fairy tale theme of wanting too much of a good thing played out in living color — and accompanied with some of the most vividly descriptive music ever written.

Yet to remember The Sorcerer’s Apprentice for only its prominence in Fantasia — and, indeed, to recall Paul Dukas for only The Sorcerer’s Apprentice — is to give both a great work of music and a fine musician the short shrift. Both deserve a deeper investigation and, by extension, a more thorough treatment than what many commentators frequently provide.

The problem is that nobody fully knows what Dukas’s own legacy might have been. Harshly critical of his own compositions, Dukas would all-too-often complete a new work, review it, pronounce it horrible, and destroy it. On many other occasions, he would retain a piece of music for his own interest, possibly hoping to revise it at a later date, but refused to ever allow it to reach the public. Consequently, Dukas’s overall output is considered small, the product of a man who ardently refused to let audiences hear anything that he deemed unworthy of their ears.   

Born into a Jewish family in Paris, Dukas faced tragedy at the age of five when his mother died while giving birth to her third child. He displayed no remarkable musical talents during his early boyhood, taking up composing as a hobby when he was 14 years old. Two years later, perhaps sensing that he had uncovered a gift, he enrolled in the Conservatoire de Paris, studying both piano performance and composition. During his time at this prestigious institution, he befriended a fellow student who would ultimately gain far greater fame: Claude Debussy.    

In 1888, Dukas wrote a cantata that won second prize in the Prix de Rome, the most coveted composition competition of that era. Many emerging composers would have greeted this news with elation. Yet Dukas, who had already developed the traits of a notorious perfectionist, became upset that his work had not garnered the grand prize. Frustrated, he soon left the Conservatoire and set out on his own.

He found work as a music critic, a profession that Robert Schuman and Hector Berlioz had also performed successfully. In 1892, his review of Richard Wagner’s “Ring Cycle” became one of the seminal descriptions of this ingenious set of operas. Today, musicologists still widely quote from his essays about Berlioz, Jean-Philippe Rameau, and Christoph Gluck.

During his spare time, Dukas continued composing new pieces. At times, he even permitted publishers to get their hands on them. When he allowed his music to enter the public sphere, however, he often found the outcome discouraging. His overture Polyeucte received only mild applause. His Symphony in C, his first large-scale work to truly gain his own approval, gained only a middling reception from the critics.    

Then he decided to write a tone poem about Der Zauberlehrling, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s tale of a novice magician who tries using a magic spell to fill his master’s bathtub. He wrote a series of glistening repeated notes for the harp to represent the drip-drip-drip of water. He developed an unwieldy theme for the bassoon to signify the brooms coming to life under the apprentice’s command.       

And with a Berlioz-esque command of the full orchestra’s expansive range, he created a wild march — first buoyant, then sinister — to tell the story of the apprentice’s frantic attempts to undo what he had done, trying to stop the increasing array of brooms from dumping more and more water into the already overflowing tub. When the piece received its premiere performance in May of 1897, Dukas became an overnight sensation. Long before Fantasia, listeners could visualize the entire storyline, painted for their ears by Dukas’s clever work.   

But there was never a second helping for audiences who adored this composition. Few pieces survived Dukas’s rigorous self-censorship. Those that did pass his personal tests never resonated with the public, even though they gained praise from Debussy and other musical leaders of that era. He obtained a teaching post at the Conservatoire. He worked with a Parisian publisher to prepare modern editions of music by Rameau and Domenico Scarlatti. Yet the man who wrote The Sorcerer’s Apprentice never could manage to recapture his one-time magic.     

In 1912, Dukas stopped composing, finding the process to be an endless source of personal angst. A few weeks before his death in 1935, he surveyed his compositional catalog and decided to demolish several manuscripts, a final act that helped cement his relative obscurity for posterity.

An assessment of what he left untouched suggests that his reputation as a “one-hit wonder” is curious, if not undeserved. His ballet La Péri, completed the year that he gave up composing for good, displays a stunning color palette worthy of his friend Debussy. His solo piano Sonate is elegant and romantic, arguably displaying the influence of Schumann. His opera Ariane et Barbe-Blue is particularly surprising in its lack of popularity, given that it reveals devices of dramatic storytelling that are in many ways similar to The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.

Yet listener preferences, like so many things, provide no precise equation to discern what makes the cut. A gifted composer turns a fable into a unique orchestration and suddenly the world listens. Suddenly, history remembers his name. And no matter how many analytical mechanisms people throw at it, the question of why this particular piece maintains an eternal position in the ears of generations of listeners ultimately remains impossible for anyone to answer. For this symphonic tale of the supernatural, this may be the greatest conjuring act of all.

The Schenectady Symphony Orchestra performs “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” on October 30 at 3 p.m. in Proctors Theatre. For tickets, call (518) 346-6204.

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