Paul Dukas: The Sorcerer’s Apprentice

A few weeks ago, I wrote about having gone to see Fantasia for the first time in the fall of 1974.  Everyone on campus at the time looked forward to its re-release. Many friends talked about how great it would be to get high and go see it.

This reveals how drug use had changed between the 60s and 70s. Back in the 60s, when LSD and marijuana hit the scene, gurus like Timothy Leary claimed drugs helped break through the culturally-imposed barriers that stifled creativity. These barriers, Leary reasoned, turned us into automatons that could be told to go to church, fight wars, and be productive consumers. People took drugs to expand their minds and gain new insights into life.  If that’s true, it makes me wonder,  when you turn inward, where do the images and ideas you get come from?

Remember that people who were in their 20s during the 1960s had not grown up with television, and so their child-like sense of wonder probably had radically different roots than the next group of us baby boomers. My peers and I, on the other hand–born in the 50s–grew up watching cartoons on Saturday mornings and on the Walt Disney hour on Sunday evenings. Our sense of wonder focused on cuteness. When drugs were used to get back to that childish state, Fantasia was the perfect vehicle.

In my childhood, we religiously watched the Walt Disney Hour on Sunday evenings.  One clip that you would some times catch a glimpse of on the show was Mickey Mouse in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. That image of Mickey dressed in the star-studded robes of a magician, taken from the movie, had also become a kind of symbol. You could buy posters of it and even find three dimensional statues of it in “collectable” stores. It went from cute to kitsch.

Some people, though, feel the entire movie epitomizes kitsch. That’s one of the reasons Stravinsky hated Fantasia. Why can’t the music stand by itself? He felt putting pictures to it created a mental crutch for people who don’t understand music and therefore could not approach it intellectually. That is kind of an elitist view.  Stravinsky I later learned got no royalties from Disney for the use of his score because of copyright issues, so he might have had a monetary axe to grind.

My complaint about Fantasia goes back to this question: “who says the mental images evoked by the cartoonists are preferable to one’s own?” Oddly enough, Stravinsky’s own Rite of Spring, eventually became my second favorite piece by the composer, but the interpretation of it in the movie–darkly colored with dinosaurs and erupting volcanoes–to my mind at least was absolutely ghastly. That actually put me off from giving it the due it deserved. Still, when Fantasia was re-released in theatres when my daughters were toddlers, I took them to see it, and later bought them the videocassette.

Of course, Stravinsky didn’t say what he thought about music that intended to evoke mental images. Both Beethoven and Mahler imitate cuckoos in their Sixth and First symphonies. Arthur Honegger wrote a piece called Pacific 231 that imitates a train. And Mozart’s father Leopold wrote a symphony with an irritating bird whistle in it. Think about the reverse situation, as well: you wouldn’t want to sit through most movies, documentaries, and other moving visual images without a musical sound track. The most abortive attempt I ever witnessed of putting music to visual images occurred in Paris. In the basement of the old Tuileries gallery, an entire room was dedicated to the display of a wrap-around series of tableaus that Monet had done of the water lilies on his pond at Giverny. Some composer had created a musical accompaniment, played on the organ, to help the listener appreciate the paintings more, I guess. It was the most depressing music I ever heard and did not fit the beauty of the water lilies in the least.

I do feel, however, that The Sorcerer’s Apprentice does work the best out of all the pieces in Fantasia. You know the story, which comes from a ballad by Goethe. After a morning of conjuring, a sorcerer leaves his apprentice alone and gives him the chore of filling a cistern with water from the well. The apprentice dons the sorcerer’s robes and commands the broom to carry the water from the well. He then promptly falls asleep. When he awakes he finds the broom has continued to carry the water the whole while and the cistern is overflowing. Unfortunately, the apprentice doesn’t know the spell to stop the broom, so he picks up an axe to destroy the broom. But then, the original spell continues to work and all the little piece of broom grow into more brooms that keep on carrying more water. In the nick of time, the sorcerer returns to reverse the spell and dry up the shop.

Dukas’ music matches the magic, the joy and the tension of this story perfectly. It starts out with a incredibly slow statement of the melody. At each new twist of the story, this theme is picked up by a different instrument and sped up until by the time of the flooding, the cymbals are crashing like thunder and the strings are playing glissandos that evoke the roiling of the waters.

Dukas, though not a prolific composer, had a profound effect on 20th century music. He taught Ravel, De Falla, and Rodrigo. Their works all show traces of the highly imagistic and vivid writing of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice. And according to my research, Disney’s film was responsible for the reawakening of interest in this work. So like my Italian friend, Gianfranco says, whad ya gonna do?

Dukas’ Biography

Download MP3 or buy CD of Dukas: Sorcerer’s Apprentice

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About kurtnemes
Writer and Education Professional. Specialties include Ethics, Personal Memoir, Classical music, Tai Chi, Stress Reduction, Meditation, Coping, Classical Music, Aging, Love, Joy, Compassion and Equanimity (& what interests me.)

9 Responses to Paul Dukas: The Sorcerer’s Apprentice

  1. noleksiak089 says:

    I’m a bassoon player, and in college I played an arrangement of this for a bassoon quartet, including a contra-bassoon. It was a lot of fun.

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  2. kvennarad says:

    Yes ‘Fantasia’ was kitsch, but it introduced a generation of American kids (and not just American) to classical music. I mean – kids listening to Stravinsky – wow! The Dukas/Mickey episode was actually a brilliant piece of animation, the music and action perfectly synced. I also loved the ballet with the crocs and hippos.

    Of course none of the music in ‘Fantasia’ was actually written with the young in mind. You probably have the clip below already on this blog (and I’m too lazy to search!). I listen to this from time to time to remind myself to take time to explore Britten’s music more thoroughly – I have resisted so far. You can’t go wrong by taking a rousing bit of Purcell as a theme…

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    • kurtnemes says:

      Thanks Marie. I’ve heard this piece many times but didn’t realize it was Benjamin Britten. His Simple Symphony is one of my favorite pieces of all time and when my daughter’s were little, they loved it as well. I’ve neglected Britten, though, earlier this year I saw a documentary about his War Requiem which was quite powerful. I’m a little anguished about his fascination with young boys. In the wake of the priest scandal it creeps me out a lot. They glossed over it in the film making it sound like it was part and parcel of British public school life. What’s your take? Same thing about Jimmy Savile and Woody Allen, no?

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      • kvennarad says:

        Someone recently remarked that our societal panic over p-philia has blinded us to the beauty of children. Yet we women spend millions of £s trying to keep looking young. Britten was gay, Jimmy Saville was compulsively predatory – they should not be mentioned in the same breath.

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      • kurtnemes says:

        In my view, using children for one’s sexual pleasure is wrong no matter who the perpetrator. But I do agree that, artistically, Britten and Saville ought not be mentioned in the same breath.

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