Dukas is known to most people today by L’apprenti sorcier (‘The Sorcerer’s Apprentice’), as popularised by Walt Disney in his cartoon film Fantasia. Sadly, this seems to have done little to arouse curiosity about the rest of his music. But in a world in which there’s no shortage of composers with a strong personal style, or an image which impresses itself on the memory, the achievement of Dukas is a little elusive.
For a start, his list of works isn’t long, although not all of them have been published - an early overture inspired by King Lear was rediscovered and first performed as recently as 1995. The works that do survive, or which have been brought to light, reflect the musical evolution of the composer’s time, though Dukas was more inclined to classical forms than his contemporary Debussy.
His Symphony in C (1895–6) is a bracing, affirmative work, though with a deeply searching middle movement, which has all the right ingredients to make it popular. The Piano Sonata (1899–1900) is a passionate, four-movement masterpiece demanding steely fingers and an ardent temperament. It was followed by another large-scale piano work, Variations, interlude et final sur un thème de Rameau (?1899–1902).
Dukas planned several operas but only one, Ariane et Barbebleue, reached the stage, in 1907. Based on a play by Maeterlinck, it was, perhaps, a bit too close for comfort to Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande, also based on Maeterlinck and produced five years earlier. Nevertheless, Dukas’s work is more forceful than Debussy’s and some people consider it his greatest achievement.
The last major work Dukas published was a sumptuous ‘poème dansé’, La péri, which he prefaced with a perversely acerbic Fanfare. Produced in Paris in 1912, it anticipated certain features in Debussy’s Jeux, also described as a ‘poème dansé’, which had its premiere the following year.
Dukas was a perfectionist, and is said to have destroyed as much as he allowed to survive. He didn’t have to earn his living by composing, since he worked as a music critic (some of his earliest reviews were of Wagner productions in London), as an editor (of the music of Rameau, Couperin, Scarlatti and Beethoven) and as a teacher, his most famous pupil being Olivier Messiaen, who revered him.
Profile © Adrian Jack