Paul Dukas

1865 1935

Paul Dukas



Dukas tried several times to win the prestigious Prix de Rome, a composing competition judged by some of the finest living composer in France including Charles Gounod, Camille Saint-Saëns and Léo Delibes. Although he won the second prize in 1888 with his cantataVelléda, the following year his Sémélé was shunned by the committee, earning only three of the nine possible votes. Greatly discouraged, Dukas left the Paris Conservatoire immediately afterwards and joined the military, resolving to become a music critic, rather than a composer, afterwards. However, the pull of composing was too strong, and when Dukas left the military in 1891 it was to pursue a career as both composer and critic.

Paul Dukas was an influential French composer and teacher who was a major influence on other early 20th century composers. He is best known for his work L’apprenti sorcier(The Sorcerer’s Apprentice) which was immortalized in Disney’s well-known filmFantasia (1940). Unfortunately, Dukas was extremely self-critical to the point where he destroyed the majority of his scores, leaving only a handful in existence.

Although Dukas’ mother was an accomplished pianist, her death when Paul was just five years old prohibited her from contributing much to her son’s musical education. Fortunately, his father Jules was also supportive of the younger Dukas’ musical interests, encouraging him when he began to compose at the age of 14 and allowing him to enroll in the Paris Conservatoire two years later. While there he took classes in harmony, piano, conducting and orchestration, and soon he was admitted into Ernest Guiraud’s composition class. During this time we began to write his first mature pieces, including two overtures in 1883, one based on Goethe’sGötz von Berlichingen and the other based on Shakespeare’sKing Lear.

Many of Dukas’ best known works were written for piano, and aptly demonstrate his consider skill at the instrument. His Piano Sonata in Eb minor (1901) and Variations, interlude et final pour piano sur un thème de Rameau (1903) are both seen as noble continuations of the Romantic piano traditional dating back toBeethoven and Liszt, combined with a decidedly modern tinge. During this period Dukas was also working diligently on completing his first opera, Ariane et Barbe-bleue, based on the play by Maurice Maeterlinck and inspired in part by Dukas’ friend, the composerClaude Debussy in addition to more classical sources. Finally premiered in 1907 at the Opéra-Comique, the work was enthusiastically received and soon was being shown in Vienna, Frankfurt, Milan and New York.

In 1912 Dukas completed his impressionist ballet La Péri, which proved to be is last major work. After that point his immensely self-critical nature caused him to tear up nearly every composition he attempted to write. Shortly before his death, he destroyed nearly all of his unfinished compositions in addition to many older but unpublished works. From the 23 years leading up to his death in 1935, only four works remain, includingLa Plainte au loin du faune (1920), which was written in memory of Claude Debussy. Although he essentially removed himself from the composition world, Dukas’ life flourished in many other ways in his last few decades. In 1916 he married Suzanne Pereyra, and the two had a daughter Adrienne-Thérèse in 1919. Perhaps most significantly from a musical perspective, Dukas began a second career as a highly skilled and incredibly influential teacher.

While Dukas was beginning to write reviews, starting with one of Wagner’s Ringin 1892, he was also busy as a composer, with the overture Polyeucte (1892), the libretto to a three-act opera entitledHorn et Riemenhild and the three-movement Symphony in C (1896) being among his major projects from this period. His next work,L’apprenti sorcier (1897), was a programmatic piece based on Goethe’sDer Zauberlehrling and premiered at the Société Nationale under the baton of Dukas himself. Five years after Dukas’ death, hisL’apprenti sorcier became the signature piece of Walt Disney’s filmFantasia (1940), which combined classical music and animation. Starring Mickey Mouse as the notorious apprentice,Fantasia, along with its reboot Fantasia 2000, introduced generations of young people to the works of Dukas along with other great classical composers. Unfortunately, the fame ofThe Sorcerer’s Apprentice has tended to overshadow many of Dukas’ other works.

Dukas had already begun teaching orchestration, an area in which he was extremely gifted, at the Paris Conservatoire in 1910, and in 1928 he accepted a full time position as professor of composition. He became known for his holistic teaching style in which he strayed frequently into the realms of history, philosophy and politics, which he would also frequently discuss in his over 400 published articles. Interestingly for a composer who was at the forefront of modern music, his lessons often focused on historical composers such asRameau, Scarlatti, Beethoven and, first and foremost, Johann Sebastian Bach. Many of the most significant composers of the succeeding generations went to Paris to study with Dukas.Olivier Messiaen, Claude Arrieu andMaurice Duruflé are among some of the more notable of his many disciples, and many other composers ranging fromAlban Berg to Igor Stravinsky were directly influenced by him. 

Towards the end of his lifetime, Dukas’ contributions to French music and culture were lavishly rewarded by appointments as president of the Union syndicale des compositeurs, a member of the Académie des Beaux-Arts and an officer of the Légion d’Honneur, not to mention his post at the Paris Conservatoire. Despite the fact that a mere two dozen or so of his works survive, Dukas has been rightfully placed among the most significant of early 20 th century composers both for his brilliant compositions and his influential teaching.

Images courtesy of Teatro Regio and public domain