A French Fantasy
PAUL DUKAS (1865-1935)
L'apprenti sorcier [The Sorcerer's Apprentice]

Like Johannes Brahms, Paul Dukas was a perfectionist. His high standards for craftsmanship prompted him to destroy many of his own compositions, works that did not satisfy him. Consequently, few of us are acquainted with any of his music besides The Sorcerer's Apprentice. The French, however, consider his masterpiece to be the opera Ariane et Barbe-Bleue ("Ariane and Bluebeard," 1907); Dukas also composed a fine Piano Sonata that is rarely heard.

The Sorcerer's Apprentice is inextricably associated with the image of Mickey Mouse, frantically sloshing buckets of water in an ineffectual attempt to prevent flooding in his master's workshop; the scene is captured in immortal animation in Walt Disney's film classic, Fantasia. Dukas' symphonic scherzo actually has its origins in no less a literary figure than Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, whose ballad Der Zauberlehrling (1796) was the inspiration for this programmatic piece.

The story is well-known. In his master's absence, the apprentice incants a spell that causes a broom to fetch water for him, sparing the apprentice that task. But he forgets the magic formula to stop the broom. Panicked, he hacks the broom in two, aghast when the broom clones itself into two brooms fetching water. As the house approaches flood stage, the sorcerer returns and invokes the correct magic to restore order amidst the soggy shambles of his workshop.

A master of orchestration, Dukas matched the finest achievements of the entire nineteenth century in this 12-minute work. Martin Cooper calls The Sorcerer's Apprentice "a refined and Gallic version of Richard Strauss." Every detail of Goethe's poem is present, artfully illustrated in brilliant orchestral color. With careful manipulation of a basic variation form, he uses odd, three-measure phrase lengths and mysterious, magical sound effects to bring the tale to life, instilling a child's delight in all of us. When the piece was premiered in May 1897, it was an instant success.

Dukas scored his symphonic poem for piccolo, two flutes, two oboes, three clarinets, bass clarinet, three bassoons, contrabassoon, four horns, two trumpets, two cornets, three trombones, timpani, harp, glockenspiel, bass drum, cymbals, triangle and strings.

Morceau de concert, Op. 154

Modern musical scholars and musicians have treated Saint-Saëns in a somewhat patronizing manner. Witness, for example, this near dismissal by British musicologist Wilfrid Mellers:

Minor figures such as Gounod and Saint-Saëns can remain creative while being guardians of academic respectability; though they may not be great composers, they are musical personalities, in a way that the ‘academic’ composers of Germany or [England] were no longer.

Yet many of Saint-Saëns’ works – the five piano concerti, the Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso for violin and orchestra, his Organ Symphony, the opera Samson et Dalila, and of course the beloved Carnival of the Animals – remain firmly entrenched not only in the performing repertoire but also in popular consciousness.

He was both prolific and long-lived, so it is no surprise that much of his music is unfamiliar. The Morceau de concert [Concert Piece] we hear is one of three such works he wrote: one each for violin (Opus 62, 1880), French horn (Opus 94, 1887) and this harp work, Opus 154. The title is a sort of catch-all for a quasi-concerto, a piece for soloist and orchestra, but not in conventional concerto form.

This one consists of a ravishing introduction, followed by a recurring Russian-flavored theme that Saint-Saëns treats initially as variations. It then becomes a free rondo, alternating episodes between the harp and the orchestral ensemble. Contrast results from instrumental color rather than development. Restraint in the orchestra allows the delicate timbre of the harp to remain in the foreground. The movement concludes with a brilliant coda that the soloist shares with the orchestra.

Saint-Saëns composed this work in 1918 with a dedication to Nicole Anckier, who had won a prize at the Paris Conservatoire and asked him for a new piece. The date of the premiere is undocumented. The piece was published in 1919 by the Parisian house of Durand.

The score calls for woodwinds, horns, and trumpets in pairs, timpani, solo harp and strings.

MAURICE RAVEL (1875-1937)
Alborada del Gracioso

Alborada del Gracioso, which has been translated both as ‘Morning Song of the Jester’ and ‘The Fool’s Aubade,’ refers to a facetious stock character in Spanish comedy. Listeners would grasp the unmistakable Spanish character of Ravel’s glorious music even without knowing that background.

Like many of Ravel’s orchestral works, this one originated for solo piano. He composed the piano suite Miroirs [Mirrors] in 1904 and 1905. Miroirs launched an intensely creative period for him that lasted through 1908. Ravel acknowledged the suite’s importance in his brief biographical sketch, describing it as:

. . . a collection of piano pieces that mark a change in my harmonic development that is so profound that they have put many musicians out of countenance who up to that point have been the most familiar with my style.

Each of Miroirs’ five movements was dedicated to a different member of Les Apaches -- the name translates roughly to ‘the hooligans’ -- a group of artists and writers with whom Ravel was closely associated from about 1901 until the First World War. The dedicatee of Alborada del Gracioso was Dmitri-Michel Calvocoressi, a musicologist. 

Pianistically, it is the most virtuosic movement in Miroirs. Calvocoressi called it ‘a big, independent scherzo in the manner of Chopin and Balakirev,’ and the great pianist Walter Gieseking considered it and Scarbo, from Ravel’s Gaspard de la Nuit, to be two of the most difficult piano works in the literature.

Ravel’s orchestral version capitalizes on the flashy elements, particularly in his use of percussion. The movement’s structure is essentially A-B-A. Its opening measures feature full strings playing pizzicato, making a giant guitar out of the orchestra. The central section is a plaintive love lament, with the bassoon as soloist. Rapid repeated notes enhance the rhythmic impetus and unmistakable Spanish flavor; trombone glissandi add to the atmosphere. Cameo solos for woodwind and brass principal players dish up luscious melodies rich with the flavor of paella and tapas; castanets evoke the mystery of flamenco. If the original piano writing was symphonically conceived, Ravel’s gifts as orchestrator blossom fully in this larger version. Alborada del Gracioso is a magnificent showpiece for orchestra.

The first performance of the orchestral version took place on 17 May, 1919. The score calls for piccolo, two flutes, two oboes, English horn, two clarinets, two bassoons, contrabassoon, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, crotales, triangle, tambourine, castanets, snare drum, cymbals, bass drum, xylophone, two harps and strings.

Nocturnes for Orchestra and Women’s Chorus

Nocturnes is one of Debussy’s earliest orchestral compositions to secure a niche in the repertoire. Composed in the late 1890s, it dates from a turbulent and financially trying period in the young composer’s life before he had established himself as a major figure in French music. From a biographical standpoint, Nocturnes is associated with the years of Debussy’s courtship of his first wife, Rosalie (Lili) Texier, whom he married in Paris on 19 October, 1899. Musically, however, the three movements owe their initial genesis to the Belgian violinist Eugène Ysaÿe.

Debussy’s original intent was to compose a work for violin and orchestra, with Ysaÿe as soloist. The earliest pre-echo of Nocturnes is from 1892, in a version called Trois scènes au crépuscule (Three scenes at dusk). In 1894 he abandoned that title, and much of the earlier music, in favor of the more abstract Nocturnes, with solo violin. By 1897 he had abandoned that conception as well, in favor of a purely orchestral composition. Still, Nocturnes continued to give him trouble, and he did not complete the score until 1899. As Debussy’s relationship with Lili Texier intensified, Camille Chevillard conducted the first two movements on 9 December 1900 at a Concert Lamoureux. (Sirènes could not be performed because no women’s chorus was available.) Critical reception was mixed, but an historic and insightful review by the composer Paul Dukas memorializes the occasion. Debussy had to wait ten months before he heard the entire work, again on the same concert series. By then he was wrapped up in preparations for the première of Pelléas et Mélisande at the Opéra. To supplement his income, he had also begun to write music criticism for the Revue blanche. The orchestral works for which he is justly celebrated, La mer (1903-05), Images (1906-09) and the ballet Jeux (1912-13) followed steadily thereon.

In private correspondence with friends, Debussy revealed more about the origin of the three mysterious, irresistible movements of Nocturnes. He told Henri Lerolle that walks in the Bois de Boulogne had been the impetus for Fêtes.

It is the Bois de Boulogne. A retreat with torches, evening, in the woods. . . . I have seen from afar, through the trees, lights approaching, and the crowd running toward the path where the procession is going to pass. Then the horsemen of the Garde Républicaine, resplendent, their arms and helmets lit by the torches, and the bugles sounding their fanfare. After, all that fades and grows distant.

Not one generally to subscribe to programmatic explanations for his works, Debussy nevertheless published an explanation of his new orchestral work that links it strongly to the impressionist movement in art.

The title Nocturnes is to be interpreted here in a general and, more particularly, in a decorative sense. Therefore, it is not meant to designate the usual form of the Nocturne, but rather all the various impressions and the special effects of light that the word suggests. Nuages renders the immutable aspect of the sky and the slow, solemn motion of the clouds, fading away in grey tones lightly tinged with white. Fêtes gives us the vibrating, dancing rhythm of the atmosphere with sudden flashes of light. There is also the episode of the procession (a dazzling fantastic vision) which passes through the festive scene and becomes merged in it. But the background remains persistently the same: the festival with its blending of music and luminous dust participating in the cosmic rhythm. Sirènes depicts the sea and its countless rhythms and presently, among the waves silvered by the moonlight, is heard the mysterious song of the Sirens as they laugh and pass on.

Debussy’s evocative words do not set forth fully the subtle psychological states induced by, or perhaps narrated within each movement. Nuages is music of contemplation, introspection, deep thought. The mood is passive, and private. In contrast, Fêtes is public, active music, implying involvement and participation in the unidentified, universal celebration. The last movement, Sirènes, returns to the private sector. The Sirens were seductresses, and Debussy’s ravishing music lifts us effortlessly into an intoxicated state of complete surrender. The wordless women’s chorus is eerie in its offstage presence, there but not there, exercising power with no need to flex muscles. All three movements end quietly. A master of effective understatement, Debussy understood that dramatic power did not necessarily require fanfare and volume.

The incorporation of women’s chorus is associated with Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé and Holst’s The Planets. Both those works postdate Debussy’s Nocturnes by a dozen years or more. There is actually precedent in Debussy’s own music in his very early orchestral suite, Printemps (1887).

Debussy scored Nuages and Fêtes for piccolo, three flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, two clarinets, three bassoons, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, cymbals, snare drum, two harps and strings. For the finale, Sirènes, he silenced the tuba, adding a women’s chorus of eight sopranos and eight mezzo-sopranos.

MAURICE RAVEL (1875-1937)

The Polish-born composer Alexandre Tansman once told musicologist Roger Nichols:

Boléro was first performed as a ballet by Ida Rubinstein, commissioned by her, and it was not a musical success. And then Toscanini came with the New York Philharmonic and played it much faster. And Ravel was not pleased at all. We were in the same box and he wouldn't stand up when Toscanini tried to get him to take a bow. Then he went backstage and told Toscanini, "It's too fast," and Toscanini said, "It's the only way to save the work."

Neither Ravel nor Toscanini could possibly have foreseen the enormous popularity that Boléro would achieve. Even before Blake Edwards's film "10" (1979) assured it a permanent place in every pop record collection, Boléro was one of the most frequently performed compositions in any concert hall, readily recognized by non-musicians. Something about its insistent, understated (and deceptively simple) rhythm and magnificent, controlled crescendo to the ultimate orchestra climax has captured audience imaginations for six decades. With Boléro, Ravel secured an enviable spot in the permanent repertoire.

“17 minutes of orchestra without any music”

Ironically, he had very mixed feelings about the work, dismissing it as a "crescendo on a commonplace melody in the genre of Padilla; Boléro: seventeen minutes of orchestra without any music." He told Michel Calvocoressi that it was an experiment:

Orchestral tissue without music. . . .There are no contrasts, and there is practically no invention save the plan and the manner of execution. The themes are altogether impersonal, folk tunes of the usual Spanish-Arabian kind, and the orchestral writing is simple and straightforward throughout, without the slightest attempt at virtuosity.

Was it embarrassment in the face of such enormous success that caused him to be so self-disparaging?

Ballet with Spanish roots

Ravel began work on Boléro upon returning from a four-month tour in the United States and Canada early in 1928. Prior to his departure, he had agreed to compose a ballet for his friend Ida Rubinstein, a former dancer with Diaghilev's ballets russes who had formed her own troupe. Her initial suggestion was an orchestration of pieces from Albéniz's Ibéria. After discarding that idea, Ravel next thought to arrange one of his own pieces. Eventually, he began work on an entirely new composition, called Fandango. Shortly afterward, he altered the title to Boléro, completing the score in a matter of months. The ballet was premiered in November 1928.

For most audience members, the music of Ravel's Boléro is so familiar as to not require comment. What may enhance the experience is concentration on the intricacy of the melody, whose rhythmic nuances and sinuous wanderings are vastly more complex than one initially thinks. (Try singing the melody on your own, without a recording in the background to help you along!)

Also, Ravel's incomparable orchestration technique reaches a pinnacle in this work. His masterly tour through the orchestra gives virtually every melodic instrument its chance to shed some new light on the theme. The tessitura is rather high for bassoon and trombone, giving those instruments an opportunity to explore an unusual register. Ravel was also bold in including the older oboe d’amore and the relatively new tenor and soprano saxophones as solo instruments.

He escalates both dynamic level and tension while sustaining a steady pulse and a virtually static harmonic rhythm. The success of his "exercise" has given Western music one of its most treasured orchestral works.

Boléro's colorful orchestra comprises 2 flutes, piccolo, 2 oboes (second doubling oboe d'amore), English horn, clarinet in E-flat, 2 clarinets in B-flat, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, high D trumpet, 3 trumpets in C, 3 trombones, tuba; sopranino, soprano and tenor saxophones; timpani, 2 snare drums, cymbals, tam-tam, celesta, harp and strings.


Both fandango and boléro are Spanish dances in triple time. Fandangos, which are first mentioned in Spanish literature at the beginning of the eighteenth century, are traditionally danced by a couple with accompaniment of castanets and guitar, often with singing as well; the balletic appeal of such a tradition is obvious. By contrast, the boléro is a more recent development, not appearing until the last quarter of the eighteenth century. Rarely moving at more than a moderate tempo (whereas the fandango can range from moderate to fast), boléros allowed for more intricate choreography incorporating some highly stylized traditional poses.

© Laurie Shulman, 2018