French composer and critic Paul Dukas was born 149 years ago today. Famous today for his orchestral piece The Sorcerer’s Apprentice and perhaps the opera Ariane et Barbe-bleue and the ballet La Péri, Dukas left a trail of unpublished and destroyed works behind him. However, a few gems did survive. A Symphony, Piano Sonata and several other fine works demonstrate what a meticulous and versatile composer he was.
1. Symphony in C
Dukas composed his only symphony from 1894-6. A momentous and heroic work, the Symphony in C has angular and playful melodies in the outer movements that hint at what was to come in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. In contrast the second movement is full of anguish and longing.
2. Piano Sonata in E flat minor
Another first for the composer was his only Piano Sonata, published after the Symphony and The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. It was dedicated to Saint-Saëns and first performed by Edouard Risler in the Salle Pleyel in Paris. A stormy first movement precedes a slow movement of beautiful calm. Virtuosic technique is needed for the extremely agitated third, but the finale offers a reflective exploration of the opening of the piece.
3. Variations, interlude and finale on a Theme of Rameau
A follow-up to the Piano Sonata, Dukas’s set of 11 variations (plus an interlude and finale) are bright and breezy. They demonstrate the composer’s ability to generate a wealth of material from a small and simple melodic fragment.
Where The Sorcerer’s Apprentice was conceived as a ‘symphonic scherzo after a ballade of Goethe’, Polyeucte was composed as an overture for Pierre Corneille’s tragedy of that name. Composed in five distinct sections, the sumptuous melodies and rich orchestral score make it almost reminiscent of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde score.
The six-movement work Villanelle may be familiar to any French horn players out there. Written as an exam piece to challenge the horn class of the Paris Conservatoire in 1906, it asks for demanding techniques from the player. Writing to his publisher Jacques Durand, Dukas said: ‘It ended up greatly amusing me to write it. The accompaniment is better suited to an orchestra than to the piano.’ He later rejected the idea of orchestrating it (although people have since), expressing his desire for it to remain as an exam piece.