Paul Dukas (1865 – 1935)
The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (L’apprenti sorcier) (1897)
Instrumentation: Instrumentation: piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 3 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 2 cornets, 3 trombones, timpani, percussion, harp, and strings
Performance time: 9 minutes
The great German poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe borrowed the story of his 1797 ballad poem Der Zauberlehrling (“The Sorcerer’s Apprentice”) from the dialogue The Lie-Fancier by the second-century Greek writer Lucian. In the story, the apprentice uses his master’s absence to work some magic of his own. He casts a spell on the broom, which comes alive and starts to bring buckets of water into the house. To his horror, however, the apprentice discovers that he has forgotten how to stop the broom. He chops the broom in two, only to find that both halves turn into brooms working at ever more frantic speed.The excess water threatens to inundate the whole house, and the sorcerer returns just in time to prevent a catastrophe.
Paul Dukas was a contemporary and friend of Claude Debussy, in fact, they studied with the same composition teacher at the Paris Conservatoire, which Bizet had also studied at decades prior. The overly self-critical Dukas completed only about a dozen works in his entire lifetime. He was also a distinguished teacher (his students included Olivier Messiaen) and a brilliant music critic.
Goethe’s ballad inspired Dukas to write the symphonic poem, subtitled “Scherzo after a ballad by Goethe,” which is undoubtedly his best- known work. The Musical Quarterly, the oldest academic journal on music in America, commented that the world fame of the work not only overshadowed all other compositions by Dukas but also eclipsed Goethe’s original poem. The Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians observed, “The popularity of L’apprenti sorcier and the exhilarating film version of it in Disney’s Fantasia possibly hindered a fuller understanding of Dukas, as that single work is far better known than its composer.”
Released in 1940 Fantasia was said to be Walt Disney’s all-time favorite. Adjusted for inflation, it ranks 23rd in the all-time box office. Because World War II was happening at the time, initial box office sales were dismal. It didn’t become a hit until 1969 during its fifth theatrical release. It was re-marketed as a “psychedelic” movie. Though it has no cohesive story, the film centers around popular classical music. Perhaps the most iconic segment stars Mickey Mouse as the young apprentice. Due to the success of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Dopey was almost cast as the apprentice, but Mickey ended up being chosen. Thank goodness.
Dukas’ symphonic scherzo begins with a slow introduction depicting the sorcerer and his incantations; the woodwinds, the harp, and the harmonics of the strings produce a mysterious ambiance. A strong timpani stroke gives the signal for the novice’s action, and the broom slowly begins to move as the bassoons introduce the scherzo’s main theme (which is none other than the theme of the introduction in a much faster tempo).The orchestration of the melody becomes richer and richer as the broom wreaks havoc in the house. There is a momentary stop when the first four notes are played, haltingly, by the solo contrabassoon. But then the poor apprentice’s nightmare starts all over again until the slow tempo of the introduction announces the wizard’s return.The first four notes of the theme are also used to end the work, played in a fast tempo and fortissimo by the entire orchestra.
Dukas features a trio of bassoons playing the motif, or theme, of a spellbound broom. All of the different sections of the orchestra are featured. Not only that, the music is highly rhythmic with a variety of sounds and moods, and each piece tells a story.
– Corbin Foster
Claude Debussy (1862 – 1918)
Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune (Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun) (L. 86) (1892–1894)
Instrumentation: 3 flutes, 2 oboes, english horn, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, harp, crotales, and strings.
Performance time: 10 minutesJust as painters of the early twentieth century abandoned representational images for abstraction, many composers of the same period abandoned the familiar harmonies of the tonal system for new combinations of tones. “Atonality,” broadly defined, is music that avoids those well-worn major and minor chords. Claude Debussy, in Paris, began feeling the pull of new harmonies. Prelude to The Afternoon of a Faun revealed new possibilities in meandering modal harmony, spontaneous rhythmic development, and diaphanous orchestral color.
Debussy was influenced in his explorations by trends of his day, the revolutionary poet Stéphane Mallarmé, the chromaticism of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, and the whole-tone sonorities of Javanese gamelan music first heard at the 1889 Exposition Universelle in Paris. In 1892, when Debussy was about 30, he began working on a large three-part composition inspired by the Mallarmé poem, Afternoon of a Faun, of which he only completed the Prélude. The work is not a direct setting of the words but an autonomous “prelude” suggested by the poem’s dense, drowsy eroticism. Mallarmé called his poem an “Eclogue” — a brief, nature-oriented lyric recalling the poems of Virgil. Its narrator-subject, the faun, is the half-man-half-goat exemplified by the god Pan, wonders how best to treasure the memory, or perhaps the dream, of two exquisite nymphs. He plays a song upon his flute, aware that music falls short of the viscerality of experience.
The Prelude did not gain notoriety until 20 years after Debussy composed it when Vaslav Nijinsky choreographed and danced it for the Ballets Russes with explicit depictions of the faun’s sexual daydreaming. Parisian viewers were shocked, foreshadowing the protests that would happen the following year at the premiere of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring.
The Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun opens with one of the most iconic passages in classical music — a solo flute passage that ranks with the first four notes of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony as instantly recognizable and utterly universal. The phrase curls from a single flute like a wisp of smoke, falling in half-steps to delineate the mysterious tritone, once called diabolus in musica or the “Devil’s interval” and then rising again. Conductor, composer, and scholar Pierre Boulez cited this exquisitely dramatic entrance as a turning point in composition; “the flute of the faun brought new breath to the art of music.”
While this gesture comprises a melodic theme, it was without precedent in classical melodic treatment: tonal yet fluid, without a fixed origin or resolution, and not suggesting conventional development. Debussy thus resists the Germanic urge to develop his thematic material: the melody remains static while the accompaniment evolves. The strings savor long, flowing unison lines, like Indian ragas, seemingly surrounding the flute with soft, natural textures. The intensity swells and ebbs; as the tempo grows more animated, a new melody joins them, only to disolve into a mist. All this suggestion eventually coalesces into a voluptuous, full-orchestral love song.
The music shows like the river along whose banks the faun pursues his lovers, real or imagined. And, as always with Debussy, the best way to listen is simply to go with the flow.
– Corbin Foster
Georges Bizet (1838 – 1875)
Carmen Suite No. 1 (1882)
- Les Toréadors
Carmen Suite No. 2 (1887)
- Chanson du Toréador
- Danse Bohème
Instrumentation: 2 flutes, piccolo, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, side drum, tambourine, triangle, bass drum, cymbals, harp, and stringsd strings
Performance time: 24 minutes
Caarmen is considered one of the world’s most popular operas. There is something about this opera that puts it ahead of all others in its familiarity and fascination. It’s the opera we’ve all grown up with, the one whose melodies we’re most likely to hear in the schoolyard or as elevator music. Most of all, there is Carmen herself, opera’s most seductive temptress. Nobody—not even a lover—can tame her. Just like the titular character, the opera is an intoxicating whirl of thrilling choreography, vivid orchestrations, and heart-stopping drama; the allure is dangerous and yet, irresistible. The music is an endless parade of one great melody after the other, from the languid allure of a sensual song to the macho boasts of a dashing bullfighter.
Georges Bizet was a French-born romantic composer. He was one of the youngest students ever admitted to the rigorous Paris Conservatoire. At 19 he was awarded the fabled Prix de Rome—the conservatoire’s highest award for composition. Considering the high expectations set so early for him in the musical circles of France, Bizet’s career, up until his masterpiece Carmen, had been something of a disappointment.
In 1873 writing partners Ludovic Halévy and Henri Meilhac adapted the libretto of Prosper Mérimée’s 1845 novella Carmen. It was written in the opéra comique genre, which replaced the sung recitative with spoken dialog and got its name from the Parisian opera company in which Carmen premiered. Bizet began composing in the summer of that year and said of his commission, “the absolute certainty of having found my path.” Controversy erupted even before rehearsals began, and the opera was fraught with delays. Perhaps the Parisian opera house Opéra-Comique was the last venue to expect such shocking material, but a change was in the air by the name of Realism. By the time of its premiere on March 3, 1875, arguments were raging not only in the theater itself but also cafés around Paris.
Set in southern Spain, Carmen tells the story of the downfall of Don José, a naïve soldier, with a troubled past, who is seduced by the wiles of the fiery gypsy Carmen. Don José abandons his childhood sweetheart and deserts from his military duties to pursue Carmen, yet loses her to the famous bullfighter Escamillo. Afterwards which Don José kills Carmen in a fit of jealous rage.
The calamitous first-season failure of Carmen convinced Bizet, “I foresee a definite and hopeless flop.” Three months after the premiere, in the early hours of June 3, his wedding anniversary, Bizet suffered a fatal heart attack. He was just 36 years old. He could have never dreamed his wildly revolutionary opera would become one of the most popular and influential works in the history of music.
We hear the heady fascination of the Iberian Peninsula’s sun and warmth in the explosive opening bars, which evoke the visceral excitement of the bullring in Seville. Almost immediately after we hear those smashing, cymbal-accented chords, we hear a second theme that takes Bizet’s drama to the source of Carmen’s preoccupation with fate. Against a foreboding background of tremolo strings, we hear a second, five-note “fate” theme, which evokes the fatal destiny that looms ever closer to this femme-fatale.
– Corbin Foster