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Views And Reviews: The Sorcerer’s Apprentice

Paul Serotsky tells how composer Paul Dukas was rescued from History’s dustbin by the Cartoon King.

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Dukas (1865-1935) – The Sorcerer’s Apprentice

Think about it: study music for over seven years, win the Prix de Rome, achieve high office as an administrator, teacher and member of the Legion d’Honneur, become a respected writer, and compose lots of music – that’s a recipe pour le grand succes, n’est-ce pas?

Non! Not if you publish only about a dozen works, and destroy your mountain of unpublished works shortly before you die. I don’t know why, but Paul Dukas did exactly that, taking a voluntary leap into History’s dustbin, from which he was rescued by the unlikeliest of heroes – the “Cartoon King”.

Anxious to revive the flagging “career” of his pet character, Walt Disney had a revolutionary idea that would ultimately set “art music” before the widest audience and make an art-form out of what was then simply slapstick entertainment. Goethe’s salutary story, Dukas’ graphic music, and his own quirky genius created The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, “starring” Mickey Mouse with Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra as “backing group”. From this seed, fertilised by the mundane realisation that the original “short” alone would never recoup its astronomical production costs, grew the legendary “Fantasia”.

His praiseworthy aims make it all the more puzzling why Disney saw fit to over-egg his pudding. Old slapstick habits die hard, so Goethe’s storyline was exaggerated, and Dukas’s music butchered to suit. On first hearing the original score, folk weaned on the film (probably 99% of us) usually wonder what on Earth’s going on! Right, let’s get our story straight:

Monsieur le Sorcier, departing on business, instructs his petit apprenti to give the workshop a good swill out during his absence. The lazy lad soon finds that lugging hefty bucketsful of water up from the cellar well is too much like hard work, so he sneaks a peek in the sorcerer’s Book of Spells and as quickly as you can say “Hey, Presto!” he’s bewitched the broom into doing the job. Everything goes swimmingly, at least until he realises he doesn’t know how to apply the brakes. He tries every trick in the Book, to no avail. In rising panic he grabs an axe, and stops the broom dead by splitting it clean down the middle.

His relief is short-lived. The spell is not broken. The bifurcated broom twitches ominously, and resumes its labour – at the double! Aghast, he drops the axe, despairingly aware of his folly (he’s lazy, but not stupid: you have to be fairly smart to be apprenticed to a sorcerer). Now everything really is going swimmingly – as the broom ignores his puny incantations, so his rising panic is matched by a rising tide. The disaster is dispelled only by the returning Sorcerer: he banishes the broom, sternly surveys the sodden scene, and robustly reprimands the wretched lad.

Dukas converts the lesson, “a problem ‘halved’ is a trouble doubled”, into mesmerising music, a “ballet of the imagination” cunningly coloured and brimming with brilliantly imitative effects. That’s generally enough to keep most of us happy. However, there’s more, isn’t there? The two “broom-laden” episodes follow the same pattern, like two musical “expositions”. A superimposed crescendo sweeps to a biggish climax, then resurges to an enormous one. This shape is easy to see, but not so easy to realise musically – an apprentice might stir up a potion, and “play it through, then play it again, louder”, but there’d be no “magic”. It takes a real sorcerer to find exactly the right ingredients, to mix them together just so, and to cast the spell that enchants us as surely as that broomstick.

© Paul Serotsky


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