October 2010

The Sorcerer's Apprentice

by Paul Dukas

Paul Dukas (pronounced doo-KAHSS) was born in Paris, France in 1865. He was not a very well-known composer. Part of the reason for this is that he was a perfectionist, and commonly destroyed his work before it was published.

In 1797, a German named Johann Wolfgang von Goethe wrote a poem that is thought to have been inspired by a very old Greek story called "Philopseudes" (pronounced fie-LOP-soo-dees) by Lucian. Goethe's poem was called "Der Zauberlehrling" (pronounced dair ZOW-ber-LAIR-ling), which, in English, would be "The Sorcerer's Apprentice".

The story is simple. A master sorcerer leaves his workshop, giving menial chores to his apprentice. An apprentice is someone who wants to learn to become a master at something (in this case, sorcery), so they agree to work alongside a master to learn what the master knows.

The apprentice is less than thrilled with his chores, and is tired of hauling water one bucket at a time. He decides to use magic to enchant a broom to do the hauling for him. He is successful, but he quickly realizes he doesn't know how to make the broom stop.

The apprentice finally decides that he can't stop the broom, so he takes an axe and chops the broomstick in two. Unfortunately, each half of the broomstick becomes a new broomstick and each one takes a bucket and continues getting water.

Finally, the master sorcerer returns, sees what the apprentice has done, and casts a counter spell to undo the damage and clean up the mess. The morale of the story clearly seems to be "don't attempt to use knowledge or skills that you haven't fully understood yet".

Dukas wrote this symphonic piece in 1897 (100 years after Goethe's poem). In 1937, his estate was contacted by Walt Disney. Disney wanted to include the piece in his 1940 film Fantasia. Interesting side note, evidently Disney wanted to release an independent film of Mickey Mouse playing the Sorcerer's Apprentice. It was Leopold Stokowski (the conductor and orchestrator for Fantasia) that convinced Disney to include it as part of the larger film.

Once again, we have another great example of leitmotif. To tell the story, Dukas uses themes for the characters and actions. For example, when magic is used, the theme sounds something like this:

And, perhaps the most memorable, here is the theme of the marching broom:

Even more subtle themes are used to depict the master sorcerer, the falling of water, and so on.

"The Sorcerer's Apprentice" is easily Paul Dukas' most well-known piece of music. He owes a lot of its popularity to Disney.

Jon's Introduction to This Piece:

Like many people since 1940, my introduction to this piece was through Fantasia. Actually, I'm not sure that I actually saw it on Fantasia first. More likely, it was a clip from Fantasia that was played on The Wonderful World of Disney, or something like that. I don't think I'd seen the actual movie Fantasia until it was re-released in 1990.

I do remember also having a vinyl record that contained the piece (and the jacket contained some illustrations from the clip). I mentioned this album in April's Music of the Month about "Peter and the Wolf".

The symbol of Mickey Mouse playing the Sorcerer's Apprentice was so iconic that they actually included the same clip again (though remastered) in the later release Fantasia 2000. On our last trip to Disneyland, Jake bought a "Sorcerer's Apprentice" hat. We still have it.


So, here is "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" by Paul Dukas. It is 9 minutes 19 seconds long. While you're listening, see if the bassoon reminds you of a marching broomstick carrying a bucket of water. And later, can you tell when many broomsticks appear?

The Sorcerer's Apprentice by Paul Dukas (9:19)

For those interested, this recording is taken from the Original Soundtrack from Disney's Fantasia, featuring Leopold Stokowski conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra.

Jon's Interpretation:

This piece is really magical to me. I love the bouncy bassoon line that depicts the marching broom. It's very memorable. But there are other expressive moments as well. Toward the end, where Disney portrays that the apprentice is about to be sucked into a whirlpool, you hear a high desperate-sounding trumpet line that sounds like a cry for help.

Shortly after that, you hear a group of French horns giving a similar line, but it sounds muddled. I don't know if they did this on purpose, but it sounds like he's crying for help under water.

It's weird how some pieces effect you. I can remember listening to "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" on the radio (Classical 89, KBYU) years ago. I think I was running an errand for work (maybe CompUSA?). I turned it up, and enjoyed the ride. When it got to the desperate trumpet line I described earlier, I actually got a little emotional, I'll admit. It's just so well done. That was actually one of the earliest thoughts I had about putting together some regular method to educate and expose my kids to Classical music.

Extra Credit:

This should come as no surprise. I can't possibly talk about this piece without pointing you to the excerpt from Disney's Fantasia. Here, we have Mickey Mouse playing the role of the apprentice. Enjoy!