The Sorcerer’s Apprentice

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            Dukas is not alone in his misfortune in composing a piece whose overwhelming popularity has obscured other worthwhile compositions.  While he is well known in France, and was an important composer, critic, and teacher in the early decades of the twentieth century, American audiences know him almost exclusively from his Sorcerer’s Apprentice.  He was not a particularly prolific composer, but was successful in France—largely owing to his dramatic works, especially the opera, Ariane et Barbe-bleue, as well a symphony and the ballet, La Péri.  An intelligent and respected music critic, he wrote over four hundred articles and reviews.   But, perhaps his most lasting contribution to French musical life was as a teacher at the leading French musical institutions.  The list of those of his pupils who went on, themselves, to distinguished careers as composers is a long one, and replete with those who became well known to audiences worldwide. 

            In his own work, he was a meticulous craftsman (he destroyed many of his compositions which did not live up to his standards), distinguished by clear musical architecture and a mastery of orchestral color.  He was not a musical prodigy, but worked hard, and by his early thirties, he wrote his only published symphony (1896), which garnered a mixed reception. He thereafter immediately set to work on his tone poem, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, and as they say, the rest is history.  Its popularity has eclipsed almost everything else that he accomplished in his life, and its reputation remains undiminished.   But, the reputation is more than justified, for it not just a bit of programmatic fluff—a catchy story told well.

            It is based on the famous poem by Goethe from 1797, Der Zauberlehrling.   The poem is well known in Germany, and even the source of a popular saying about politicians who lose control of their supporters.  Dukas’ setting follows the poem faithfully:  An old magician leaves a young apprentice in charge, with household duties to perform.   A lazy lad, he tires of carrying buckets of water, and uses his imperfect command of magic spells to enlist the aid of a broom.  The broom won’t stop, water is overflowing everything.   In a desperate attempt to stem the tide, the apprentice splits the broom with an axe, only to find there are now two, crazy, out-of-control brooms—working at double time.   Disaster is looming, but the old sorcerer returns in time to set things right.   His final homily is a universal one:  Only those who have mastered the magic should invoke powerful, mysterious forces.

            To be sure, Dukas’ work owes much of its popularity to its engaging story, but its success is founded in the composer’s marvelous ability to spin out phrases that are built upon simple musical ideas, but grow and expand with a logic and unity that bring the same skill of Beethoven to mind.  The main theme of the work is a case in point, and it literally expands with the increasing tension of the drama.  The other salient virtue is Dukas’ mastery of orchestration—the story literally comes alive in sound.

            While the story is cute and entertaining, everyone knows the underlying truth: humankind should not essay more than it can control and understand.  As technology threatens to overwhelm us all, a good reflection on the lesson of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice is in order.

--Wm. E. Runyan

© 2017 William E. Runyan