he history of Hollywood before the Second World War is loaded with iconic images: 1939 alone gave us Vivien Leigh vowing she would "never be hungry again" in Gone With the Wind; Judy Garland dancing down the Yellow Brick Road in The Wizard of Oz; Lawrence Olivier brooding on the moor in Wuthering Heights; Jimmy Stewart as a freshman Congressman in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington; Marelene Dietrich asking what the boys in the back room will have in Destry Rides Again. It's easy to see why 1939 has been described as Hollywood's greatest year.
But these unforgettable characters were trumped by an even more famous one the following year: Mickey Mouse in a robe and pointed hat adorned with mystical symbols as The Sorcerer's Apprentice. He became the poster boy (poster mouse?) for the classic 1940 Walt Disney film Fantasia, and his star-turn was the only segment of the film repeated in the 1999 sequel.
It would be fair to say that Mickey owned his phenomenal success less to the brilliant Disney animators than he did to French composer Paul Dukas (1865-1935), whose L'apprenti sorcier received its world premiere in Paris in 1897. (Less than two years later, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra—at that time called The Theodore Thomas Orchestra—would present the American premiere in Chicago.) It is the one work on which Dukas's entire reputation with modern audiences is built. Self-critical to a fault, he destroyed the majority of his works, with the result that only 15 of his compositions survive. (The largest of these are his three-movement Symphony in C, the ballet La péri and the opera Ariane et Barbe-bleue.)
In The Sorcerer's Apprentice, Dukas provided an aural equivalent of the pictorial storyboards used to create an animated film. The musical score is very closely based upon Der Zauberlehrling, a poem by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe dating back to 1797. Essentially, Dukas gave musical expression to virtually every element of Goethe's poem; all the Disney animators had to do was give visual expression to every phrase and nuance of Dukas's score.
hat accounts for the disproportionate fame Dukas achieved with this one, brief work? The brilliant orchestration is often cited; Dukas was something of an acolyte of Richard Wagner, particularly the German composer's innovative use of the orchestra. The way the main theme grows from a stark statement by a solo bassoon to added woodwinds and eventually the brass choir keeps the emotional tension building, especially since the rest of the orchestra becomes more and more agitated—notice, for instance, the string section's swirling chromaticism as the water level grows higher and higher. Dukas also used a type of sequence in building emotional energy—that is, the theme of the marching broom is reiterated repeatedly, at a regularly raised pitch. Combined with the natural crescendo created by the increasingly complex orchestration, this technique perfectly portrays the rising water—and the apprentice's rising anxiety—even as it gradually draws the listener onto the edge of his or her seat. There is something of a parallel with Ravel's popular Boléro, which also takes a theme and repeats it almost ad infinatum, the pitch raising and orchestration growing ever more colorful, for a powerful emotional impact.
Then there is the theme itself. It could be analyzed from any number of angles, but ultimately it boils down to one essential if also indefinable adjective: catchy. The theme representing the broom is haunting; just try to listen to this work without that melody staying in your head for hours afterwards. In its combination of comic and macabre elements, it recalls Gounod's Funeral March of the Marionette (Baby-boomers will recognize it as the theme from Alfred Hitchcock's television series). Both themes have a dotted, "skipping" rhythm that lends a distinct lilt, but Dukas's has a quicker pace and a higher level of energy.
An infuriatingly catchy melody might be merely a fortunate happenstance, but Dukas was blessed with more than craftsmanship; he was also inspired. The tone poem opens with some tonally ambiguous harmonies that evoke the mood of the supernatural. Once the apprentice actually starts conjuring, and the broom comes to life, the theme does not simply begin skipping along; it begins with a sort of musical hiccough, as the bassoon quickly establishes its tonality by playing the tonic, the dominant (the note a fifth higher), and the lower dominant one octave below, from which the ascending triplet figure brings us back to the tonic as the broom's inexorable march begins. Aurally, we are hooked, and like the enchanted broom, we listeners embark upon breath-taking journey that is one of the miracles of the orchestral repertoire.
Essay by John Schauer Associate Director of Communications at Ravinia Festival Editor of Ravinia Program Magazine