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Pity the poor one-piece composer. Not the composer who writes only one piece, but the musical creator who enjoys far-reaching success with one of his works but is destined never to repeat that achievement with any other. The Frenchman Paul Dukas belongs to that dreaded fraternity. His single claim to fame is The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, which he wrote in 1897. A very methodical (read “painstakingly slow”), highly self-critical musician who destroyed many of his compositions before his death, Dukas considered himself a teacher who composed. Even so, he managed to turn out several large-scale works in addition to his one big hit.
As for The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, it deserves the esteem in which it is held. A legitimate child of the 19th century’s much celebrated wedding of music and literature, the descriptive tone poem, the work operates on quite as high a level of distinction as the ranking compositions in the genre by Liszt and Strauss.
The composition’s musical storytelling is remarkably graphic, although for the many who have seen the Disney animation in the film Fantasia, a hearing of the piece may bring to mind Mickey Mouse. No matter. The music alone, sans Mouse, suffices to tell the tale propounded in a ballad by the great German author and poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.
The picture comes into focus right from the start. Mysterious strings set the atmosphere of the sorcerer’s workshop. (No less than Stravinsky “borrowed” this opening for his early Fireworks.) The apprentice, alone, discovers enough of his master’s magic (trumpets) to bring a broom to life (bassoon). The broom performs the apprentice’s chore – that of fetching water from the river. Enough water soon becomes too much (orchestral agitation), but the distraught lad cannot find the “stopping” incantation. In desperation, he chops the broom in two, but now the work is done at twice the speed by the broom halves (bassoon and bass clarinet). Bedlam. Flood disaster is imminent. But the sorcerer returns, speaks the magic words (trumpets again), the brooms are stilled, and calm, as at the beginning, is restored. Four quick chords at the end suggest the sorcerer has delivered that number of disciplinary strokes to the mischievous apprentice.
— Orrin Howard