Paul Dukas Biography

(French Composer Best Known for the Orchestral Piece 'The Sorcerer's Apprentice')

Birthday: October 1, 1865 (Libra)

Born In: Paris, France

Paul Dukas was a French composer, critic and teacher best known for his musical works such as The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. Paul was born into an esteemed and rich Jewish French family to a banker father and a pianist mother. He became interested in music at the age of 14 and two years later, he enrolled at the Paris Conservatory to receive training in music composition. He embarked on a career as a music critic and composer in 1889 and began with composing piano pieces such as Symphony in C Major. His early career is also marked by the success of his cantata titled Velleda, which earned him a second prize at the Prix de Rome. However, it was the success of his orchestral piece The Sorcerer’s Apprentice that took over everything else Paul did during his lifetime. The piece was later immortalized by Disney’s cult classic animation film Fantasia. Paul was highly critical of his work and rejected much more of his compositions himself than he brought out in the world. During the later parts of his life, he served as a composition teacher at the Paris Conservatory.

Quick Facts

French Celebrities Born In October

Also Known As: Paul Abraham Dukas

Died At Age: 69


Spouse/Ex-: Suzanne Pereyra Dukas (m. 1916)

father: Jules Dukas

mother: Eugénie, Eugénie Dukas

children: Adrienne-Thérèse, Adrienne-Thérèse Dukas

Born Country: France

Composers Educators

Died on: May 17, 1935

place of death: Paris, France

Notable Alumni: Conservatoire De Paris

City: Paris

More Facts

education: Conservatoire De Paris

awards: 1888 - Prix de Rome

Childhood & Early Life

Paul Dukas was born Paul Abraham Dukas, on October 1, 1865, in Paris into a Jewish family. He was born as one of three children in the family of Jules Dukas and Eugenie Dukas. He was raised in a financially well-off family with his father working as a banker. However, it was his mother’s profession as a pianist which attracted Paul’s interest when he was young.

Paul’s mother passed away when he was 5. But by then, he had begun his piano lessons, which was a norm for the upper-middle-class children in the French families.

Initially, he had no great interest in playing the instrument. Falling sick at the age of 14 and recovering from caused him to finally begin composing his first track on piano.

Within the next two years, he exhibited all the signs of becoming a great pianist. He took the next big step at the age of 16 when he entered the Paris Conservatory. It was one of the highly revered music institutes in entire France or even Europe. In the Conservatory, he learned different aspects of composing from masters such as Georges Mathias, Theodore Dubois and Ernest Guiraud. At the Conservatory, Paul excelled in composing great initial compositions such as oetz de Berlichingen and Le Roi Lear.

In 1888 came the first major breakthrough of his musical career, when for his cantata titled Velleda, he won second place in the Rome de Prix award ceremony. However, he was disappointed by this loss and left the Conservatory in 1889 to start an independent career as a musician and a critic. After leaving the Conservatory, he also completed his compulsory military training.

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His famous cantata Velleda was first performed in public in1892, along with Pierre Corneille’s Polyeucte. A few years later, he performed Symphony in C Major. He had dedicated this composition to Paul Vidal and Paul’s first performance of the piece was directed by Vidal himself. The symphony received mixed reviews initially but eventually, when it was revived in 1902, it was received in a much better way. Currently, this piece is highly regarded as one of the best works by the composer.

His initial output was never large. Being a music critic also, he famously rejected most of his composing work himself. Hence, very few of the songs composed by him have survived. He mostly did dramatic and program music and recorded many compositions for piano.

In 1892, he also tried his hand at writing his first opera. Titled Horn et Riemenhild, the opera was only composed in only one act when Paul realized that it looked more like a literary piece than a musical one. Hence, he halted all work on it and decided to move on.

His musical work was being appreciated by the critics of that time as an expression of modernism in the classical form. He also was called the composer who broke the notion that French composers were not able to compose great symphonies.

In 1897, he composed yet another work that was considered modernist in its approach and ahead of its time. It was titled The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. It was a significantly shorter piece when compared to other major orchestral works of that era. It lasted somewhere between 10 to 12 minutes and was experimental in nature.

Based on the famous poem of the same name by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, it remains the most performed and recorded work by the great French composer. Years later, it was immortalized in the 1940 animated film Fantasia. The piece is also featured in another short film titled The Wizard’s Apprentice. The Sorcerer’s Apprentice became the one great work by Paul that somehow eclipsed all of his other works as a composer. In the 21st century, one of the reviewers even said that it was one of the rare occasions when the work by a great musician was more widely known than its creator.

Enthused by the reception to the piece, Paul composed two piano symphonies back to back in the early 20th century. Titled Piano Sonata and Variations, Interlude and Finale on a Theme by Rameau, the pieces were hugely successful. Many critics noted the obvious similarities with the works of Beethoven.

A little while before that, Paul had also tried his hands at opera once again after the failure of his first one in the early 1890s. He began composing L'arbre de science in the late 1890s, but his highly self-critical persona took over and he stopped working on it midway. He resumed his opera work working on another opera titled Ariadne and Bluebeard.

Ariadne and Bluebeard took seven years to finally get to a stage in 1907. It became highly popular when it was performed but its success was eclipsed by Richard Strauss’s more successful opera titled Salome. However, despite this initial hiccup, Paul’s opera took off when it was performed outside Paris in Vienna, Frankfurt and New York. Sir Thomas Beecham, an English conductor, dubbed it one of the finest lyrical dramas of its time. In the late 1990s, the opera was revived and was performed in places such as Paris and Hamburg.

In 1912, he composed a ballet titled La Peri, which was also known as Dukas. It was a one-act ballet which was performed for the first time in Paris. It was based on Alexander the Great’s encounter with a mythological peri when he was in search of immortality. After its premiere in April 1912, it remains one of his most revered works. It was also one of the last great compositions by the great composer.

In the 1920s, he focused mostly on teaching. In 1927, he was hired as the professor of composition at the Paris Conservatory in place of Charles-Marie Widor. His teaching style was a lot different from many of his contemporaries. He famously advised his students to compose with their hearts instead of heads.

During the final few years of his life, h was also given the membership of Académie des Beaux-Arts, one of the premier institutes in France. He was known to be equally respectable among the progressives and the conservative musicians.

He was made a member of the Royal Academy of Science, Letters and Fine Arts of Belgium.

Apart from being a composer, Paul was also a music critic. He published his critiques of contermpary musicians in publications suc as La Revue Hebdomadaire,  Minerva, La Chronique des Art, Le Courrier Musical and Gazette des Beaux-Arts.

Personal Life & Death

Paul Dukas married Suzanne Pereyra in 1916. The couple had one daughter, named Adrienne-Therese, who was born in December 1919.

Paul Passed away on January 17, 1935, in Paris. He was 69 years old at the time of his demise.

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