May 18, 1897 at a Société Nationale concert in Paris, with Dukas conducting
The Sorcerer’s Apprentice was only Dukas’s third original composition after leaving the Paris Conservatoire in 1889. Dukas, who did not start composing until age fourteen, tried for three straight years to win the prestigious Prix de Rome during his studies at the Conservatoire. Frustrated after his third and final attempt, Dukas abandoned school and enlisted in the military.1 Though he continued to compose as a hobby, Dukas found a new creative avenue in music criticism, beginning with a review of Wagner’s Ring in 1892.2
Dukas began work on The Sorcerer’s Apprentice shortly after the premiere of his C Major Symphony in January 1897—eight years after his departure from the Conservatoire. Apprentice was an instant success, and Dukas surely must have felt vindicated after his earlier failures at the Prix de Rome. The work’s later use in the 1940 Disney film Fantasia cemented its position as one of the most famous and recognizable pieces of orchestral music to this day.
Dukas based The Sorcerer’s Apprentice on Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s 1797 comic ballad of the same title (in German: Der Zauberlehring).3 In Goethe’s poem, the sorcerer’s apprentice attempts to perform magic while the sorcerer is away, and enchants a broomstick to carry buckets of water for him. Initially very pleased with himself, the apprentice quickly loses control of the situation as the broom continues to carry in so much water that the house actually starts to flood. Unable to find the magic words to undo his spell, the apprentice hastily resorts to chopping the broom in half with an axe, only to see both pieces come back to life and continue fetching water from the river at an even greater pace. The story concludes with the sorcerer returning home to this chaotic scene and ordering the broom back into the closet, finally breaking the spell.
As portrayed in Disney’s Fantasia, the initial soli bassoon passage represents the broomstick first springing to life, while the second soli bassoon passage represents the two freshly-cleaved pieces reanimating to wreak even more havoc. Although it is now somewhat difficult to hear The Sorcerer’s Apprentice without thinking of Fantasia, the association between the sprightly bassoons and enchanted broomsticks was undoubtedly Dukas’s original intent as well.
1 In the early 1900s, another young French composer named Maurice Ravel would go on to fail in his three tries as well.
2 Manuela Schwartz and G.W. Hopkins, "Dukas, Paul," In Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online, http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/subscriber/article/grove/music/08282 (accessed June 30, 2011).
3 Goethe’s ballad, in turn, was based on a 2nd Century story by the Greek satirist Lucian of Samosata.