Dukas: The Sorcerer's Apprentice

The Sorcerer’s Apprentice

Duration: 12'
Publisher: Public Domain
KSO played: 2010, 1999

It is a determined and rarefied individual who can listen to The Sorcerer’s Apprentice without once thinking of Mickey Mouse.  With the possible exception of his debut, the sequence from Fantasia is by far his most famous outing.  Walt Disney bought the film rights for Dukas’s music in 1937, and the resulting cartoon made what was up to then a reasonably popular piece into a wildly successful one. 

Disney’s scheme was a grand one.  He envisaged not simply a film, but what we would now call a multi-media event.  Actors, lighting and technology were to be employed in theatres to create an immersive experience (which perhaps marks the root of the idea that became Disneyland).  New sequences would be added over the years so that it would constantly evolve.  Plans to shoot the film in widescreen and partly in 3-D came to nothing, but Leopold Stokowski’s recordings comprise one of the very first film soundtracks in stereo. 

So high is the regard in which Fantasia is now held that it is easy to forget that on its release in 1940 it was a box-office flop and largely dismissed as a pretentious folly.  The film’s failure meant that Walt Disney’s vision of an evolving film never happened.  When Disney Studios finally produced a sequel some sixty years later, it consisted of all-new animations, except for one: Mickey Mouse’s disastrous conjuring trick was simply too iconic to leave out.

Fantasia may have put the music indelibly into popular consciousness, but the credit for the plot must go to Goethe.  His 1797 ballad Der Zauberlehrling tells the tale of a sorcerer who leaves his workshop and instructs his apprentice to do his chores.  Bored with fetching water by pail, the apprentice decides to use magic to bring his broom to life to do the work for him.  Unfortunately he does not know how to make it stop and the workshop is soon flooded.  His attempt to solve the problem with an axe leads to further disaster: each splinter of the broom become a new broom, all of them marching unstoppably.  Fortunately the sorcerer returns and casts the spell necessary to bring everything back to rights. The poem ends with the sorcerer’s warning that raising powerful spirits is a matter only for a master.

Paul Dukas’s tone-poem dates from precisely a century later, in 1897.  Dukas is now considered something of a one hit wonder, but holds a more important place in the history of French music than this might suggest.  He was a contemporary of Debussy and taught a number of distinguished pupils including Messiaen and Rodrigo.  He also, like Debussy, made a successful career as an insightful critic.  His music is beautifully crafted and shows a sensibility highly attuned to the cutting edge of his time, but little of it survives: an extreme sense of perfectionism led him to destroy most of his own works 

Strauss: Perpetuum mobile / HK Gruber: Charivari

Perpetuum mobile, Op.257

Duration: 4'
Publisher: Public Domain
KSO played: 2010

Charivari (An Austrian Journal for orchestra)

Duration: 12'
Publisher: Boosey & Hawkes
KSO played: 2010

“Charivari” is a folk custom originating in France but prevalent throughout Europe from the Middle Ages. In England it was known as “rough music.”  A group of villagers would congregate outside the window of a newly wed couple and “serenade” them: Raucous singing was accompanied by a noisy racket produced on makeshift instruments, pots, pans and any other object that could produce a noise.  An echo of the practice survives today in the tradition of tying cans to the back of the bride and groom’s car to rattle along the road as they drive off. 

Although it originated as a harmless prank, the tradition became less benign as it developed.  An unwed cohabiting couple, or a couple in a marriage considered unsuitable, could also find themselves serenaded in this fashion.  In this way the practice became a tool of social coercion, by which the community forced its members to adhere to its mores.  There is a German term that describes this acquiescence to a social norm: Gemütlichkeit.

Gemütlichkeit is a loaded term that for the generation of Austrians that grew up in the aftermath of the Second World War, including HK Gruber.  It suggests a particular kind of superficial cosiness and blithe ignoring of the past.  Gruber has explored this facet of Austrian culture extensively, both as a composer and as a performer of the songs of pre-war Jewish composers such as Kurt Weill and Hanns Eisler.  By combining popular, “deacadent” styles with the high art of Mahler and Schoenberg, he confronts this head-in-the-sand attitude head on and aims to reconcile Austria with its history.

Charivari takes as its starting point the motif from a polka by Johann Strauss, Perpetuum mobile.  Gruber’s reasons for appropriating this particular piece are twofold: first, he had previously used the motif in some incidental music, and wanted to repay the debt.  But Strauss’s jolly polka also has a darker subtext: for Gruber it embodies the Gemütlichkeit that has characterised much of Austria’s official life, and has been used to gloss over and even to conspire with some of the less savoury aspects of the country’s history.  Thus through the course of Charivari, this façade gradually slips, as the style of the music drifts away from a simple 19th century dance to something closer to the expressionism of Mahler and Schoenberg.  Finally the mask is stripped away.  It is hastily restored in the closing bars, with a fleeting reference to another Strauss work, Wiener Blut, but its inadequacies are now plain to see.  As Gruber comments, “The uglier facts of history cannot always be glossed over; and except perhaps for the tourist trade, there’s nothing to be gained from obsessively harking back to ‘the good old days’.”