Paul Dukas (1865 - 1935)
The Sorcerer's Apprentice
Subtitled "Scherzo after a ballad by Goethe" the story of the Sorcerer's Apprentice is very ancient indeed. It was an old story when retold by the ancient Greek satirist Lucian of Samosata, in about AD150, and probably goes back to ancient Egypt. It is now best known in Walt Disney's retelling, starring Mickey Mouse, in the film Fantasia. You may wonder whether Paul Dukas wrote anything else, since his fame now seems to rest solely on this piece. The answer is that he did, but not a lot. A large number of his compositions were unpublished, and he destroyed all of these shortly before his death. His opera Ariadne and Bluebeard is still regularly heard in France, and a charming Villanelle for horn and piano remains in the repertoire - but performances of anything else are extremely rare now.
The Sorcerer's Apprentice was written in 1897, when Dukas was 32 years old. In style it is part way between Berlioz's Witches' Sabbath and Debussy's La Mer. There is a story about the writing of The Sorcerer's Apprentice, sometimes quoted by orchestral musicians. When played, it sounds as if the tempo is a moderate-paced three in a bar, but it is actually written out in a very fast one in a bar. This makes it hard for the musicians to read, harder to play, and even harder to count. The explanation often given is that Dukas was working to a commission when writing this, and was paid by the number of bars - hence he split it up into three times as many bars as are really necessary!