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  • Writer's pictureGraham Abbott

The Composers of 1865, Part 3: Paul Dukas

Keys To Music often used anniversaries as a rationale for some of the topics I chose, and, to be honest, they were often an excuse for me to explore composers or music about which I knew very little. This was certainly the case in 2015 when the sesquicentenary (150th anniversary) of the birth of not one but four important composers was celebrated. The four-part series called "The Composers of 1865" was the result.


1865 was a good year for composers. This article is the third in a series of four in which we're exploring the lives and works of four composers born in that year. Already we've covered Carl Nielsen from Denmark and Alexander Glazunov from Russia. Now we turn our attention to a French composer who is nowadays remembered mainly for a single composition. His name is Paul Dukas.

The one piece by Dukas most people know today is his symphonic poem, The Sorcerer's Apprentice, composed in 1897. It's a work which deserves its fame, because it's brilliant, and of course it was thrust into the realm of popular culture as early as 1940 when it provided one of the most memorable sequences in Walt Disney's Fantasia.

Sadly, though, the fame of The Sorcerer's Apprentice has led to Dukas being regarded as something of a "one hit wonder". I even included him in a post about supposed one hit wonders earlier in this blog [here]. Like Carl Orff or Engelbert Humperdinck or Charles Marie Widor, or even Johann Pachelbel, Paul Dukas is remembered for one work only, and all his other works have fallen into obscurity.

But with Dukas there's another problem which does not apply to Orff, Humperdinck, Widor or Pachelbel. Dukas was not only a fine composer but a fine teacher of composition, and he applied ruthless standards to himself as well as to his students. He destroyed many of his works, and many others he refused to allow to be published. Only one work is widely known but there are only about another dozen or so works to know. They range from a full-length opera to tiny pieces lasting a minute or two, but each one is superbly crafted. It's just that Walt Disney didn't make a film about them.

Before we go any further, can I point out here that there has been much discussion among non-French speakers about the proper pronunciation of "Dukas". It is frequently pronounced with a silent "s" but my best available information - from native French speakers and those who have researched what the composer himself preferred - says otherwise. The correct pronunciation does not have a silent "s". A rough approximation for non-French speakers is "Doo-kuss".

Paul Dukas

Paul Abraham Dukas was born in Paris on 1 October, 1865, the second of three children. His mother was a talented pianist but her influence on him was brief; when he was only five she died giving birth to his sister. His father, Jules Dukas, was a banker who had a keen interest in art and culture; the composer's older brother, Adrien, followed his father into the banking profession and, like him, was interested in the arts.

In this family environment Dukas learned to play the piano but at this early stage there was nothing to mark him out as a prodigy or a genius; he's described in the Grove article on the composer as not "displaying any exceptional gift".

It wasn't until around 1880 - when he was 14 - that Dukas started composing, as a means of passing the time during an illness. On the basis of this the family decided he should receive proper musical training, so he enrolled at the Paris Conservatoire when he was 16, studying composition (with Théodore Dubois) and piano. He also gained valuable experience in conducting and orchestration by attending the ensemble class. All these experiences led to the creation of his first major works.

Théodore Dubois (1896)

In August and September of 1883, when he was still 17, Dukas produced two large-scale concert overtures, each based on a literary source. One, based on Goethe's Goetz von Berlichingen, was performed privately in Switzerland shortly after it was composed. [listen] The other, on Shakespeare's King Lear, wasn't performed at all, and as Dukas authorised neither for publication, they're virtually unknown. The King Lear overture was considered lost until it was rediscovered in 1995 and only then was it given its world premiere.

Shortly after writing these works, around the time he turned 18, Dukas entered the composition class of Ernest Guiraud. He made a good impression but was regarded as distant and aloof in his manner.

Every young French composer at the time (not to mention young practitioners in many other disciplines) competed for the annual Prix de Rome. This prize provided funds for extended study in Rome and was often the springboard for greater recognition and success not only in France but internationally. Dukas entered the Prix de Rome several times but never won; only twice did he make it onto the shortlist, and on one of these occasions - in 1888 - his entry was awarded second prize.

The usual requirement for the latter stages of the Prix de Rome was the composition of a cantata for solo voices, choir and orchestra. The judging was usually fairly conservative, which nearly always worked against composers with radical new ideas (Berlioz came up against these attitudes repeatedly; so did Ravel). Again, Dukas never permitted any of his Prix de Rome entries to be published, but the cantata which won second prize, Vélléda, has been recorded. [listen]

In 1889 Dukas made one more attempt to win the Prix de Rome but his cantata that year, called Séméle, was awarded only three votes out of nine. (The panel included famous composers such as Ambroise Thomas, Camille Saint-Saëns, Charles Gounod and Leo Delibes.) Discouraged, and prepared to give up composition altogether, he left the Conservatoire and began his military service (based in Rouen), although he intended to become a music critic once this was completed.

The turning point came in the early 1890s when Dukas left the military and returned to Paris. Intending to be both a critic and a composer, he wrote another concert overture, Polyeucte in late 1891. This had its premiere in Paris in January 1892 and is the first work he regarded as worthy of publication. Like the earlier overtures inspired by Goethe and Shakespeare, Polyeucte is on a large scale, more like a symphonic poem than a mere curtain raiser, and it's also based on a literary source. In this case it's a 17th century play by Pierre Corneille which was an inspiration for a number of other composers, including Gounod's opera Polyeucte and Donizetti's opera Poliuto. It's an intensely dramatic and tightly constructed piece which was received well at its first performance. [listen]

Although Polyeucte was well-received, its debt to Wagner was noted by many critics who were present, something regarded as suspect in French music at the time. Dukas made no attempt to hide his admiration for Wagner, especially Tristan and Parsifal, and the famous German composer's ideas influenced him throughout his life. Wagner - who had died only the decade before - soon played a role in Dukas's parallel career as a critic, which began with his assignment later in 1892 to review a season of the Ring in London.

Richard Wagner (1871)

1892 also marks the occasion when Dukas turned his attention to composing an opera, writing the libretto himself (Wagner's influence again, on both fronts). However, the work he began, Horn et Riemenhild, only got as far as the first act before he abandoned it. One of his most important works - and one which is completely outside the Wagnerian aesthetic - comes from this period as well, his Symphony in C. Writing a symphony was often a rite of passage for French composers during their student years (Bizet's C major symphony is a famous example). Dukas, though, was no longer a student in 1894 when he began the symphony - he was 29 by this stage - and he spent some three years on it. It displays his other leanings, quite apart from Wagner, in particular his interest in classical forms (the symphony being was the supreme example) and his interest in the music of César Franck. Franck had died only a few years before, in 1890, and his aesthetic, grounded in classicism and the church, had led him to write one of the most famous of all French symphonies in the 1880s.

The classical nature of Dukas's symphony is evident in its three-movement structure - very 18th century rather than 19th - and it was finished in 1896. The premiere took place in Paris in January 1897.

An interesting feature of this music - in the first and third movements at least - is Dukas's use of compound time. This is a meter in which the main beats are divisible by three rather than by two. 3/8, 6/8 and 9/8 are the most common examples of compound meter, with 6/8 being known as compound duple (two beats, each divisible by three) and 9/8 as compound triple (three beats, each divisible by three). Dukas apparently joked that he was born singing in 9/8, and it's 9/8 time which launches the symphony's final movement, although it soon gives way to a straight 3/4, simple triple, time. [listen]

Soon after the Symphony in C Dukas produced another work based on a literary source and it follows in the footsteps of the earlier overtures, which are more tone poems than overtures. This work was not called an overture but again the inspiration was Goethe, specifically his 1797 ballad Die Zauberlehrling. The title can be translated as "The Trainee Magician" but in English it's usually rendered as The Sorcerer's Apprentice.

Barth: Illustration for Die Zauberlehrling (1882)

The dramatic timing of the piece is almost perfect, one of the reasons for its universal appeal. What isn't often realised is that even for the most highly skilled orchestra, The Sorcerer's Apprentice remains one of the most challenging and technically difficult works in the standard repertoire. Even seasoned professionals hold it in some awe and no-one regards it as easy, no matter how many times they play it. (It's also entirely based on Dukas's trademark compound meter, in this case 3/8 and 9/8.) [listen]

Dukas himself conducted the premiere of The Sorcerer's Apprentice in Paris in May 1897, after which it rapidly became a part of the international orchestral repertoire.

In the late 1890s Dukas again turned his attention to opera, and began work on the libretto for an opera based on a Hindu legend, L'arbre du science. However this was also abandoned in favour of the play Ariane et Barbe-blue (Ariadne and Bluebeard) by the Belgian symbolist poet Maurice Maeterlinck. The sources I consulted for this article are contradictory about the role played in this by Edvard Grieg. Grove states that the poet chose to give permission to Dukas rather than Grieg when it came to writing the opera based on his work. But other sources state that Grieg initially had the rights and that it was only when he abandoned the idea of writing an opera that Maeterlinck allowed Dukas to use the play for his. Whatever the truth of the matter, Dukas began work on Ariadne and Bluebeard in late 1899 and it would take him about eight years to complete.

Maurice Maeterlinck

In the meantime he wrote two other works which demonstrated an unrealised talent for piano composition. The first was the Piano Sonata in E flat minor, a massive four-movement work which has been described as "one of the under-appreciated masterpieces of the French piano repertoire"; it's an incredible challenge for any pianist. Completed in 1900 it was first performed in May 1901 in the Salle Pleyel in Paris by Édouard Risler. [listen]

Édouard Risler

The other piano work from this period was the Variations, Interlude and Finale on a theme of Rameau, which was written straight after the sonata and premiered - again by Risler - in March 1903. [listen]

Dukas created one other small work before Ariadne and Bluebeard had its premiere: Villanelle, a work featuring the horn. This was written as a test piece for a competition at the Paris Conservatoire, and dedicated to François Brémond, the institution's horn teacher. Villanelle exists in two versions: the original for horn and piano [listen], and the composer's own arrangement for horn and orchestra. [listen]

Paris: View of the Pont Alexandre III toward Les Invalides (1900)

But most of the early years of the century were taken up with composing the opera. When it was premiered at the Paris Opéra Comique in May 1907 it caused a stir, but it wasn't the scandal of the season; Strauss's Salome had its French premiere around the same time and it copped most of the flak from the artistically outraged. Parisian audiences immediately drew comparisons between Dukas's Maeterlinck-inspired opera and Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande, which also set a text by Maeterlinck and had premiered five years before.

Georgette Leblanc, who created the role of Ariane (Ariadne)

Ariadne and Bluebeard tells the story of a woman's bravery and her successful quest for freedom. It's a beautiful, intriguing score, and the story is sensitively told with many layers of interpretation possible. [listen]

Ariadne and Bluebeard aroused great interest, both in France and further afield. Within five years of the premiere it had been performed in Vienna, Frankfurt, Milan and New York, but for most of the 20th century it was largely forgotten; it wasn't performed in the UK until 1937. In recent decades it's had something of a revival, with productions in Paris (at the Châtelet) in 1990, and at the Hamburg State Opera in 1997. More recently, it's been mounted at the Frankfurt Opera in the 2007-08 season, and at the Liceu in Barcelona in 2011.

After composing the opera, Dukas wrote only one more large scale work, a ballet score called La Péri (he called it a poème dansé or "choreographic poem"; Debussy used the same term to describe his ballet Jeux). This was written in 1911 and intended for Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes. However it was first danced by Natasha Trouhanova in April 1912 at the Châtelet in Paris. For this performance Dukas wrote a standalone brass fanfare. The premiere program consisted of four short dance works: La Péri, Istar by Vincent d'Indy, Ravel's Adélaïde, and The Tragedy of Salome by Florent Schmitt.

Costume design for La Péri by Léon Bakst (1922)

La Péri takes about 20 minutes and has been described by one writer as Dukas's "last and most perfect masterpiece". Even this almost suffered the fate of many other of his works as at one stage Dukas considered destroying the score. Thankfully, though, it survives as tribute to his art at the time when he largely abandoned composing. [listen]

After La Péri, Dukas composed a few smaller works but many of the larger compositions he planned never got beyond the sketch stage, and those which did were destroyed. We know of at least another symphonic poem, two operas, two ballets, another symphony, and a violin sonata which were planned and/or destroyed. As late as 1932 he accepted a commission to write a work for the 50th anniversary of the Boston Symphony Orchestra (the same occasion for which Stravinsky wrote his Symphony of Psalms) but this too was never realised.

It was teaching, rather than composing, which gave Dukas most fulfilment in his later years. From 1910 to 1913 he taught orchestration at the Paris Conservatoire, worked as an inspector of musical education in provincial France in the 1920s, and then in 1928 succeeded Widor as professor of composition at the Conservatoire. He also taught at the École Normale and his pupils included some famous names: Olivier Messiaen, Maurice Duruflé, Joaquín Rodrigo, Jehan Alain and Jean Langlais. He was famed for his broad and detailed knowledge of European musical history and he worked as an editor on publications of works by Rameau, Scarlatti and Beethoven. According to another pupil, the music of JS Bach played an important role in his teaching.

Paul Dukas and his composition class at the Paris Conservatoire, 1929. Olivier Messiaen is on the extreme right; Maurice Duruflé stands next to him.

Paul Dukas died in Paris, where he had spent nearly all his life, on 17 May, 1935; he was 69. A number of his students wrote piano pieces in his memory to make up a Tombeau de Paul Dukas, which was printed in a special edition of the Paris Revue Musicale shortly after his death. Another of his students, the pianist Yvonne Lefébure, contributed an article on Dukas which described him as…

A professor of balance, equity, harmony in one word...there was always a profound veracity in inner reactions, veiled by modesty and discretion ever diminishing their intensity. A great musician, a philosophical mind, a perfectly good-hearted man. A constant lesson in art and life for all those who knew him.

I couldn't think of anything better to say about anyone.

In recent decades there has been a concerted effort in some quarters to reassess Dukas as a composer, but with so many early works still unpublished it's hard to get a real overview of his achievements. The Sorcerer's Apprentice will always be popular, and it deserves to be, and horn players treasure the Villanelle, but the Symphony, La Péri, the Piano Sonata and the Rameau Variations at the very least deserve to become better-known and more widely performed. And then there's the opera...

I'm going to finish with a tiny rarity, a little piano piece Dukas wrote in 1925 for a grand reception held in Paris to honour the conductor Serge Koussevitzky, one of the greatest champions and commissioners of modern music. He was in Paris to receive the Legion of Honour, and Dukas was asked by the pianist and composer Robert Casadesus to write something for the reception. He was reluctant, but eventually responded with a little Allegro for Monsieur S. Koussevitzky, a little fanfare-type piece lasting barely a minute. It was played by Alfred Cortot at Koussevitzky's party.

85 years later the Italian pianist Marco Rapetti recorded the piece, apparently its second-ever performance, and we'll end with this truly rare recording. [listen]

This article is based on a Keys To Music program first aired on ABC Classic FM (now ABC Classic) in September, 2015.

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