Beyond the Disney cartoon

The Sorcerer's Apprentice has become a justly famous standard in the orchestral repertoire, but, says Adrian Jack, there are other works by Paul Dukas that deserve our attention
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Next Tuesday's Prom opens with one of the hardiest perennials in the orchestral repertoire – The Sorcerer's Apprentice by Paul Dukas. (His name is pronounced Dew-cuss, with the stress on the second syllable.) When Mickey Mouse played the character in Walt Disney's Fantasia of 1940, he only confirmed the music's iconic status. Dukas's 11-minute orchestral scherzo may, of course, have appealed to Disney because of the visual promise in its very simple narrative. (Based on a light folk-style ballad by Goethe, it's the story of a young man who courts disaster by casting a spell which he cannot undo.)

Yet the music's irresistible momentum must have had its effect on Disney, too. Written in 1897, it's a child of its time, recalling Rimsky-Korsakov in its brilliant orchestral style, while anticipating Debussy's late masterpiece Jeux with its mysterious opening and close, combin-ing the whole tone and chromatic scales.

Quite apart from its picturesque qualities, The Sorcerer's Apprentice is also a compelling symphonic movement whose basic ideas are really put to work with the energy and resourcefulness associated with Beethoven. Yet while its fame is thoroughly deserved, the comparative obscurity in which Dukas's other works have remained requires some explanation, for The Sorcerer's Apprentice is far from being his only masterpiece.

Like many French composers, from Berlioz to Faurè, Dukas earned his living as a music critic. He also taught – his most famous student being Messiaen – and edited the music of Rameau, Couperin, Scarlatti and Beethoven. This removed from him the pressure to keep producing his own compositions one after the other, by which "career" composers establish and maintain their position. As a composer, Dukas was a "professional" of the highest standard, but he was too fastidious to be a careerist. He is said to have destroyed more than he allowed to survive – only seven major works, and even some of those were saved by friends' efforts.

Such a small output is not unique – Henri Duparc's reputation rests on even less, just 16 songs in total– but perhaps one of the reasons why Dukas is not better known is that his musical personality as a whole is hard to define – one might say that he resists branding as a product. Say the name of Cèsar Franck, and you immediately have an image of a person, someone you know through the emotional appeal of his music. It's the same with Debussy, though the appeal of his music is quite different, more like a whole new way of feeling.

Historically, Dukas could be said to bridge the gap between the two, though he was three years younger than Debussy. In a genealogical sense he was dispensable, inasmuch as his music opened up no new paths; it offered other composers no ingredients that were not available elsewhere, so Dukas didn't contribute to any other composer's style. Rather, his reflected theirs, improving on some of his sources and creating a synthesis that makes a fascinating study. Yet while educational courses in the history of music can afford to ignore Dukas, anyone who is more interested in the quality of individual pieces of music than in figureheads and movements, will gladly tell history to march on while they explore the richly rewarding work of this outsider.

Several writers have said that Dukas's greatest work is his opera Ariane et Barbe-bleue, a three-act setting of a libretto Maeterlinck wrote to please his lover, Georgette Leblanc, who sang Ariane in the first production at the Paris Opèra-Com-ique in 1907. The timing was bad luck, for not only had Strauss's Salome had its Paris premiere the night before, but more pertinently, perhaps, Debussy's Maeterlink opera, Pelléas et Mélisande, had been the talk of Paris five years earlier and made unfavourable comparisons – if only on grounds of novelty – as inevitable as they were unjustified.

Yet Ariane et Barbe-bleue was admired not only by Strauss and Debussy themselves, but also by Schoenberg, Berg and Webern, who sent Dukas a telegram of congratulation after seeing it. In any case, there is surely room in the repertoire for another "Symbolist" opera when it is so different from Debussy's. The orchestral writing is much more forceful, and the sung roles full-bodied and lyrical, unlike Debussy's subtle enhancement of speech.

The part of Ariane, or Ariadne, is a demanding sing for a mezzo-soprano, who dominates for two hours (Anne-Marie Owens sang the part in the Opera North production in 1990), while Bluebeard sings only towards the end of Act I. The story, in which Ariadne defies Bluebeard and tries unsuccessfully to persuade his five previous wives to choose freedom with her, can be interpreted as a feminist tract, though equally, of course, it could be a matter of "what most women want".

In any case, Ariane et Barbe-bleue is long overdue for a London production (it was put on at Covent Garden in 1937). But there are two works by Dukas which could, and should, become part of the standard repertoire without a whole opera company bankrupting itself. One is the Symphony in C which he completed in 1896 – a bold, even breezy work in the tradition of popular light classicism represented by Saint-Saëns, though less sugary, more ironic, altogether more intellectually challenging, and with a slow middle movement which is sometimes uncomfortably searching and unpredictable.

The other is the Piano Sonata of 1901, which is like no other work. Messiaen considered it a masterpiece, and the great pianist Alfred Cortot called it one of the most important examples of adapting Beethoven to the French keyboard style, though that's a rather cautious and academic assessment. It is really a symphony for piano in the tradition of Schumann and Brahms – romantic in its fervour, classical in its form – though its style is closer to Cèsar Franck and Chausson. Beet-hoven's restless intellect is recalled in the accumulative elaborations of the slow second movement. The outer movements are overwhelming for their passionately propelled argument and thrilling sonority, while the scherzo is a knockout bravura piece, the pianist's hands alternating furiously to suggest a massive guitar, with a calmer fugal section in the middle creating a weird sense of harmonic limbo.

After his opera, Dukas wrote very little before he died in 1935, and apart from some fairly small-scale pieces, there is only his sumptuous ballet La Pèri of 1912. He called it a poème dansé, because it is not divided into separate numbers, but like Debussy's exactly contemporary Jeux, it evolves continuously. It is gorgeously, though transparently, orchestrated and more indulgently languorous than Debussy's score, with ecstatic climaxes, whereas the short Fanfare that prefaces it is a complete contrast – dry, with quirky chord progressions that no one but Dukas could have written.

Recommended CDs: Piano Sonata, Alex-ander Vaulin, Classico CLASSCD 293; Symphony, BBCPO/Yan Pascal Tortelier, Chandos CHAN9225; Le Pèri, Ulster Orchestra/Yan Pascal Tortelier, Chandos CHAN8852. There is no current recording of 'Ariane et Barbe-bleue'. 'The Sorcerer's Apprentice' opens Prom 25 Tuesday 7th August