Disney, Goethe, and Paul Dukas L’Apprenti sorcier: The story behind the popular concert music piece

As a postgraduate many years ago, I remember a few quizzical glances when people asked about the topic of my research. At least in the English-speaking world where I studied and worked, even those with an interest in concert music sometimes struggled to pinpoint if they had heard of the composer or anything he had produced. Paul Dukas, it seemed, had receded from public consciousness—despite the reputation he commanded before the Second World War as the composer of works such as the post-Wagnerian, post-Debussy proto-feminist opera Ariane et Barbe-Bleue (1907).

Paul Dukas.
Source: Wikimedia commons

Ariane was the talk of the town in Paris, Vienna, and New York following its premieres in those cities from 1907–11; the circle of Viennese composers who would emerge as the leading lights of post-tonal modernism were wildly excited about it. For a change, Dukas was the focal point of the press coverage rather than the critic instigating it. By 1907, he was admired as a prolific, thoughtful essayist, with a catalogue of writings centred on music in Paris during the fin-de-siècle and the early 1900s. Yet, a century later, only one cultural reference was guaranteed to spark recognition of Dukas. Once I dropped ‘The Sorcerer’s Apprentice’ into a conversation, then mentioned Mickey Mouse’s cartoon impersonation of the work in Fantasia (1940), there was an ‘aha!’ moment of instant recall.

Ariane was the talk of the town in Paris, Vienna, and New York following its premieres in those cities from 1907–11; the circle of Viennese composers who would emerge as the leading lights of post-tonal modernism were wildly excited about it. For a change, Dukas was the focal point of the press coverage rather than the critic instigating it. By 1907, he was admired as a prolific, thoughtful essayist, with a catalogue of writings centred on music in Paris during the fin-de-siècle and the early 1900s. Yet, a century later, only one cultural reference was guaranteed to spark recognition of Dukas. Once I dropped ‘The Sorcerer’s Apprentice’ into a conversation, then mentioned Mickey Mouse’s cartoon impersonation of the work in Fantasia (1940), there was an ‘aha!’ moment of instant recall.

Mikko Franck conducts the Radio France Philharmonic Orchestra performing l’Apprenti sorcier, composed in 1896 by Paul Dukas (1865-1935). Excerpt from the concert recorded on 21 December 2018, live from the Radio France Auditorium.

It is ironic that the serious, reserved personality of Dukas became synonymous for some listeners with the animated avatar of Walt Disney’s mass-entertainment empire. Although this partly distorted his reception history during the second half of the twentieth century, I suspect the composer might have appreciate the irony of the situation. In 1894, two years before starting L’Apprenti sorcier, the composer published an article titled ‘Music and Comedy’. Here, he argued that music’s predisposition to expressing ‘the most divine thoughts of human nature’ does not preclude the evocation of ‘earthy pleasures’. Persuading readers that lofty ideals and light-heartedness can co-exist within the compositional imagination, he laid the conceptual foundations for his most famous score. L’Apprenti sorcier reinterprets the source material—Goethe’s literary ballade Der Zauberlehrling (1797), a satire about the industrial revolution—as a symphonic farce. In Dukas’s hands, the tale of a giddy novice magician who conjures a broom to life but fails to control it is transformed into a programmatic work of heightened and hilarious drama. A motoric melody on solo bassoon suggests a robotic broom, while the dazzling orchestration appears to be the feat of a musical wizard.  

Such vivid gestures nudge us to imagine L’Apprenti sorcier with our eyes as well as our ears. By the time it premiered in Paris in 1897, the Lumière brothers had introduced their silent cinematic experimentations to the public but, as Dukas never publicly commented on the fledgling artform, it seems not to have registered on his radar, at least not then. Yet his score possessed its own visual component: watching an orchestral performance highlights its ingenious instrumentation.

The theme of the broom from Paul Dukas orchestral scherzo, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (L’apprenti sorcier)

In a seemingly unrelated event across the Atlantic in 1928, Mickey Mouse made his debut in the Steamboat Willie monochrome short. By the late 1930s Disney was worried about his signature character’s waning popularity. Collaborating with conductor Leopold Stokowski, he found a solution. They devised a feature-length Technicolor film Fantasia, featuring a string of animated, narrative shorts accompanied by symphonic repertoire—but the centrepiece was the segment starring Mickey Mouse as ‘The Sorcerer’s Apprentice’. This adaptation of Dukas’s work exaggerates its inherent absurdities—not only does it anthropomorphise a broom (as in the Goethe text) but also a mouse! One might anticipate that the ‘Mickey-Mousing’ techniques which match the moving image to the music could undermine the complexity of Dukas’s work. On balance, however, contextual study of the score, reaching back to the composer’s theorising about the expressive vocabulary of music, prompts us to reconsider the power of this inter-artistic form. Furthermore, by analysing the nuances of such multi-layered works—exploring how programme music develops the ideas of literary texts, examining how it in turn may benefit from reincarnation in twentieth-century cinematic forms—we can appreciate why L’Apprenti sorcier continues to captivate audiences.


This guest post is written by Laura Waton, Lecturer in Music at Maynooth University. Her book, Paul Dukas: Composer and Critic is the first full-length study of the composer in the English language, and is available in hardback from Boydell Press.

Paul Dukas: Composer and Critic
by Laura Watson
Hardcover / 9781783273836 / £45 or $74.25

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