The Sorcerer’s Apprentice
Paul Dukas was born in Paris on October 1, 1865, and died there on May 17, 1935. He composed L’Apprenti sorcier in 1897 after Goethe’s poem Der Zauberlehrling; it was premiered in Paris the same year. The score calls for two flutes and piccolo, two oboes, two clarinets and bass clarinet, three bassoons and contrabassoon, four horns, two trumpets, two cornets, three trombones, timpani, glockenspiel, bass drum, cymbals, triangle, harp, and strings. Duration is about 12 minutes.
Paul Dukas’ reticence about allowing his music to be issued without the last degree of finish meant that his oeuvre contains fewer complete compositions than it does destroyed and projected works. He issued a single symphony, a single opera (Ariadne and Bluebeard), and a single piano sonata, while leaving unfinished four operas, a second symphony, a violin sonata, and more. By far his most famous piece is the brilliantly conceived and executed scherzo The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.
It is hard to listen to the The Sorcerer’s Apprentice without thinking of Mickey Mouse and the animated sequence attached to this music in Disney’s Fantasia. But there is no harm in that, since the Disney sequence closely follows the events of a satirical ballad by Goethe from which the music derives, a tale in which the impatient apprentice to a powerful magician learns the hard way that he is not yet the full master of his craft. Dukas’ music, however, shows an extraordinary mastery in developing the theme of his scherzo, which grows progressively more animated yet remains taut in its construction and dazzling in its orchestral color.
The story is a simple one: A powerful magician must go out for a time, and he leaves his young apprentice in charge, with the particular order that he take a couple of buckets to the well and carry water back into the house. The apprentice finds this tedious work, and he decides to try what he has learned so far. He knows an enchantment that will bring the old broom to life and make it carry the buckets of water for him. His idea works brilliantly until the cistern is full and he realizes, to his horror, that he has never learned the command to stop the magic broom. In desperation he takes an axe and chops it into tiny pieces. But the magic causes each little chip to grow into a full-sized broom carrying buckets. The poor apprentice is on the verge of drowning because of his own spell when the master returns and quickly puts everything right again—with the water in the cistern at its original level. Then he hands the apprentice the buckets and orders him to get back to work.
Because of the way the story depicts the constant return of the bucket-bearing broom, Dukas cleverly shapes his symphonic poem in rondo form, which brings the same music back again and again, giving us a musical image of that crazy broom!
Symphonie Concertante for organ and orchestra, Op. 81
Joseph Jongen was born in Liège, Belgium, on December 14, 1873 and died in Sart, Belgium, on July 12, 1953. He composed his Symphonie Concertante for organ and orchestra in 1926 and 1927. Desiré Defauw conducted the orchestra of the Brussels Conservatory in the first performance on February 11, 1928. In addition to the solo organ, the score calls for three flutes (third doubling piccolo), two oboes and English horn, two clarinets and bass clarinet, two bassoons and optional contrabassoon, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, timpani, triangle, cymbals, harp, and strings. Duration is about 40 minutes.
Whether it is justified or not, there are many composers whose names survive largely on the strength of a single work that has achieved widespread popularity. A prime example is the Belgian Joseph Jongen, whose output includes a wide range of orchestral and chamber compositions, but who is remembered solely for this single, colorful addition to the not overlarge repertory of successful works for organ and orchestra. And even this exceptional work is not so well known as one might expect, given the fact that it is virtually the ne plus ultra for a showpiece for the organist, who must play almost non-stop, and highly virtuosic material, for over a half hour.
Joseph Jongen was a precocious musician, demonstrating exceptional talents soon after his entry into the Liège Conservatory at the age of seven. By the time he was 13 he had begun composing, and at the age of 21 he won a competition with his String Quartet, Op. 3. A Belgian Prix de Rome allowed him four years of study in Italy, Germany, and France. While in Berlin and later Munich he studied some of the latest German music, including Brahms; he met Bruch and Richard Strauss (whose rejuvenation of the tone poem fascinated him). In 1899 he visited Bayreuth, and it was proposed that he be the chorus master for the Bayreuth Festival in 1900; the politics of the Wagner family prevented it from taking place. In 1900 the brilliance of the Paris Exposition drew him to France. He met Fauré and studied with Vincent d’Indy, the composer who most directly carried on the teaching tradition of his master César Franck.
By 1905 Jongen had returned to Brussels, where he lived for the rest of his life, except for the period of World War I, when he and his family fled to England. He served as director of the Brussels Conservatory from 1925 until his retirement in 1939, but he continued to compose. It is his organ music that is best known, but there is a large body of superbly crafted chamber works that are largely overlooked. Because of his Belgian heritage and the fame of his organ music, he is often linked with the French composers in the Franck tradition. But his brother Leon, also a composer, insisted that Joseph’s wide-ranging studies and influences drawn from all over Europe is uniquely eclectic. Jongen himself preferred to think of his music as international in style.
Trained in the late romantic traditions, Jongen kept up with the latest musical developments—at least to the point of his Symphonie concertante of 1926, where he flirts discreetly with atonality. The composition of the work recalls a period when American men of business were active in promoting the arts. The piece was commissioned to inaugurate the Wanamaker Organ in Philadelphia (early in the century, the great department stores sometimes competed for public attention by sponsoring elaborate classical music concerts in halls built right into the store). When Wanamaker died suddenly, the project was dropped. The premiere was instead given by the student orchestra of the conservatory, with Jongen himself as soloist.
About the Music
The four movements of this colorful work are readily accessible. The opening movement is perhaps the most “symphonic” in character, cast in a free-wheeling sonata form, with thematic material influenced by the old church modes (a natural response from a church organist, especially in the French Catholic tradition). The second movement is a lively and virtuosic scherzo in 7/8 time. The third movement is slow in tempo, filled with mystical harmonies and mysterious sounds that border here and there on atonality. The finale is the showpiece of showpieces, a spectacular Toccata calling for supreme virtuosity on the part of the soloist. It brilliantly combines the sound of a great organ in full cry with the richness of the symphony orchestra.
CAMILLE SAINT-SAËNS (1835-1921)
Symphony No. 3, Op. 78
Charles Camille Saint-Saëns was born in Paris on October 9, 1835, and died in Algiers, Algeria on December 16, 1921. He composed the Symphony No. 3 in 1886 and conducted the first performance on May 19 that year, at a Royal Philharmonic Society concert in London. (On the first half of that concert he played Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto while Arthur Sullivan conducted.) The score calls for three flutes (third doubling piccolo), two oboes and English horn, two clarinets and bass clarinet, two bassoons and contrabassoon, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, bass tuba, timpani, triangle, cymbals, bass drum, organ, piano four-hands, and strings. Duration is about 36 minutes.
Of Camille Saint‑Saëns, Berlioz once remarked, “He knows everything but lacks inexperience.” This bon mot is ideally suited to describe a man who, having composed his first piece at age three, was hailed for a time as a second Mozart; who played a piano recital in Paris at age 10 and offered to play as an encore any Beethoven piano sonata, to be chosen by the audience; who was hailed by Liszt as the greatest organist in the world; who eagerly pursued studies in archeology, astronomy, and philosophy, and wrote extensively in all three fields, as well as taking a vigorous part in musical polemics. And, of course, in his 86 years, he composed 13 operas, five symphonies (of which two remained unpublished after his death), orchestral tone poems, 10 full‑fledged concertos for piano, violin, or cello, and a large body of chamber music and other works. But he is best remembered for a private burlesque which he dashed off in a matter of days, an amusing jest called The Carnival of the Animals (this fact would have caused him deep chagrin).
The Third Symphony bears a dedication “to the memory of Franz Liszt.” The Hungarian composer, who had exercised a profound influence on his French colleague, had died in July 1886 without having heard the symphony that was to bear this dedication, which Saint-Saëns had conducted in London the preceding May 19. The dedication was not only an avowal of long-standing friendship but also of musical connection. Saint-Saëns learned his technique of thematic transformation from the tone poems of Liszt. And the idea of adding an organ to the instrumentation of a symphony came from one of those tone poems, Hunnenschlacht (The Battle of the Huns). Saint-Saëns himself wrote a program note for the premiere in which he remarked that the symphony is divided into two large parts, though with subdivisions, these correspond quite closely to the four movements of a traditional symphony. He connected the first movement’s abridged development to the Adagio and the scherzo to the finale “so as to avoid somewhat the interminable repetitions which are now more and more disappearing from instrumental music.”
The premiere was a stunning success, and the work has remained popular ever since. Charles Gounod was in the audience at the first performance, and he remarked, “There goes the French Beethoven!” Saint-Saëns must have been delighted. Though the common nickname of “Organ Symphony” (not given by the composer) may hint that the organ plays a prominent role throughout, in fact its appearance is discreetly handled, being absent for long stretches, sometimes forming part of a distinctly impressive sense of orchestral color, and occasionally (as at the beginning of the finale), dominating the entire ensemble.
The Organ Symphony remains one of the handful of French symphonies of the romantic era that we hear with any frequency, a work that captures the expansive spirit of the age while also showing the way (with its web of thematic transformations) to the later symphonies of Franck (an immediate successor to this piece), Chausson, and Dukas.
© Steven Ledbetter (www.stevenledbetter.com)