L'Apprenti sorcier, or The Sorcerer's Apprentice, is undoubtedly Paul Dukas' most famous work. Described as a 'symphonic scherzo after a ballade of Goethe', it was first performed on 18 May 1897 but owes a degree of its fame to Walt Disney who used it in the 1940 animated classic, Fantasia.
The work is based on Goethe's Der Zauberlehrling which, itself, was based on a. 2nd Century Lucian dialogue, and tells the story of an apprentice magician who, in his master's absence, tries one of his spells and cannot control the chaos that ensues. Dukas' tone poem is a wonderfully orchestrated and colourful work, with a rhythmic energy and exaggerated degree of symmetry. Listen how the famous theme gradually builds from fragments of melody into a ongoing, unstoppable torrent of notes.
Paul Dukas turned to composition at the age of 13 as a way out of the grind of piano practice. Discovering a natural aptitude, he attended the Paris Conservatoire at age 16 and was entered for the Prix de Rome repeatedly. After failing to win the prestigious award, he took military service, after which he went back to composition. His first major work was the Wagnerian overture Polyeucte , which also displayed the influence of his idol César Franck. Following parallel careers as critic, orchestrator and editor of works of composers such as Jean-Philippe Rameau left Dukas little time for composition, but he completed a Symphony in C in 1897, the same year as his most famous piece.
L'Apprenti Sorcier (The Sorceror's Apprentice) was subtitled "...a symphonic scherzo after a ballad of Goethe", but the macabre jollity of the piece brings to mind none of the Teutonic gravitas one associates with the author of Faust. A great influence upon Stravinsky and Debussy, it is now widely known for its use in the Disney film Fantasia, and forms the crux of Dukas' reputation.
As Dukas aged, he became more exacting of his efforts. It took the best efforts of his friends to persuade him not to destroy certain works of his, and for long stretches he wrote virtually nothing. However, that which remains is of undeniable quality, using novel harmonies and modes such as the whole-tone scale. A liking for intellectual constructs blended with characteristically French lightness of touch influenced many other composers in the early part of the 20th century.