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The Sorcerer's Apprentice
PAUL DUKAS (1865-1935)
The Sorcerer's Apprentice, Scherzo after a ballad by Goethe (L'apprenti sorcier) (1897)
Usually and unjustly placed in the category of "one-hit wonders," Paul Dukas was actually a gifted composer who won the coveted Prix de Rome (1888); sadly, because he was extremely self-critical, he burned virtually all of his unpublished manuscripts, thereby reducing his slender musical legacy to around a dozen works. Fortunately, The Sorcerer's Apprentice, which gained him wide recognition, was spared this fiery fate. Wolfgang von Goethe's 1797 ballad "Der Zauberlehrling" was the inspiration for the brilliant Scherzo. Of course, what propelled The Sorcerer's Apprentice into popular culture was Walt Disney's Fantasia (1940), the animated film whose soundtrack consisted of eight classical music masterpieces (though sometimes in altered forms), with Leopold Stokowski conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra. It was a brilliant stroke to cast Mickey Mouse as the apprentice, a cartoon character that was not even a glimmer in the eyes of Goethe or Dukas. A quick refresher on Goethe's poem's plot: a master sorcerer goes out, leaving his young apprentice to carry buckets of water for the bath from the river, but the lazy apprentice instead conjures a broom to do the hauling. When the apprentice realizes he has forgotten the spell for stopping the overachieving broom from flooding the house, he decides to split and destroy it with an ax, only doubling the disaster with two brooms now engaged in full-throttle water-carrying. With the flood out of control, the apprentice calls the sorcerer to sets things right. Mysterious sonorities open the tone poem, suggesting magical incantations, and the apprentice's spell is represented by a dissonant two-note motif that returns later in the piece. Galumphing bassoons portray the brooms, and as the disaster escalates, their music becomes faster, pounding out a relentless march. With all aquatic hell breaking loose, the music reaches a huge climax before the sorcerer returns — along with the incantatory music from the beginning — restoring the calm of a hard-learned lesson.
SERGEI PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
Violin Concerto No. 2 in G Minor, Op. 63 (1935)
Having completed his First Violin Concerto in 1917, and feeling uneasy about the implications of the Bolshevik Revolution, Sergei Prokofiev decided to leave Russia in 1918, not planning to return. But after traveling throughout the world (including the United States) and settling in Paris he decided to go home in 1933, after 15 years of self-imposed exile. During his time away from Russia, he was active both as a composer and pianist, and the Second Violin Concerto was his last "émigré" commission. Prokofiev speaks of how he came to write the concerto: "In 1935 a group of admirers of the French violinist [Robert] Soetens asked me to write a violin concerto for him, giving him exclusive right to perform it for one year. I readily agreed. ... As in the case of the preceding concerto, I began searching for an original title for the piece, such as 'Concert Sonata for Violin and Orchestra,' but finally returned to the simplest solution: Concerto No. 2. Nevertheless, I wanted it to be altogether different from No.1, both as to music and style." The work opens with a lyrical, yearning solo entrance for the violin, but brilliant passages soon follow. Listen for the ominous presence of the bass drums heard here and again in the third movement. The expressive second movement Andante — the heart of this concerto — features a graceful interplay of legato melody and pizzicato accompaniment; some may hear in it a harbinger of the Romeo and Juliet ballet he was also working on at the time, as well as echoes of his popular "Classical Symphony." The finale breaks into an energetic, earthy dance tune — angular and brash in its conception, with vibrantly colored passages for the winds and percussion (the castanets and other Spanish accents are a tip of the sombrero to the Madrid premiere). The final flurry of notes from the soloist is marked tumultuoso with good reason.
ZOLTÁN KODÁLY (1882-1967)
Dances of Galánta (1933)
As a child Zoltán Kodály lived in the small town of Galánta where his father was the railroad stationmaster for a time. There he also heard a gypsy band that later sparked his interest in collecting traditional Hungarian folk songs and dances and transcribing them. In 1905 he undertook his first research expedition into central Europe's back country, with Galánta as his starting point. "Sometimes I would just buttonhole people in the street, invite them to come and have a drink, and get them to sing for me ..." His fellow-Hungarian composer Béla Bartók shared this passion for ethno-musicology, saying: "We found in the most ancient Hungarian peasant music what at last proved to be suitable material for forming the basis of a higher Hungarian art music." There was a vigor and authenticity that seemed to give new life to more formal musical genres. Their interest in folk tunes influenced and inspired their works — a trend that had already begun in the late 19th century as waves of musical nationalism began to infiltrate "serious" music. The Budapest Philharmonic Society commissioned Kodály to write a new work for their 80th anniversary, and a collection of Hungarian folk tunes published in 1804 became the basis for the piece. He wrote (referring to himself in the third person): "The forebears of these Gypsies [in Galánta] were known more than 100 years ago. About 1800 some books of Hungarian dances were published in Vienna, one of which contained music 'based on Gypsies from Galánta.' They have preserved the old Hungarian traditions. In order to keep them alive, the composer has taken his principal themes from these old editions." The five colorful, beguiling dances, mainly verbunkos (i.e., recruiting dances), place flute and clarinet in the spotlight. Bartók later paid Kodály the highest compliment, writing: "If I were asked to name the composer whose works are the most perfect embodiment of the Hungarian spirit, I would answer, Kodály ... His composing is rooted only in Hungarian soil."
IGOR STRAVINSKY (1882-1971)
Suite from The Firebird, for Piano and Orchestra (1919)
In another example of "the rest being history," one man's missed opportunity was another man's step into fame. So when other composers were unable to meet his timetable, the great impresario Sergei Diaghilev engaged the just 27-year-old Igor Stravinsky to compose The Firebird ballet for the renowned Ballets Russes. Anatol Liadov (he of The Enchanted Lake, Baba Yaga, and Kikimora) was to have received the commission, but apparently was known to be lazy and missed out on the opportunity. Other candidates were Tcherepnin, Glazunov, and Sokolov. Stravinsky was untested and unsure about being able to fulfill the commission, but "he [Diaghilev] came to call on me one day, with Fokine [the choreographer], Nijinsky, Bakst, and Benois. When the five of them had proclaimed their belief in my talent, I began to believe, too, and accepted." The Firebird premiered in Paris June 25, 1910 — just a little more than a century ago. The ballet's spectacular success catapulted Stravinsky to international prominence and led to further collaborations with Diaghilev (Petrushka, The Rite of Spring, Apollon Musagète, and others). Acknowledging later that the score used a "wastefully large orchestra," Stravinsky scored two of the three suites extracted from the ballet for slightly smaller forces: the present one in 1919 and another in 1945. The exotic scenario is filled with the stuff of folk legends: a prince, 13 princesses, the Firebird's magic feather, and the evil ogre Kastchei and his followers. The 1919 Suite with its vibrant colors and rich harmonies glitters and pulses with fantastic effects, from luminous to primitive, presenting the best-known highlights: Kastchei's Enchanted Garden and the Dance of the Firebird; Dance of the Captive Princesses; the Infernal Dance of the Subjects of Kastchei; the Berceuse and Finale, a spectacular, shimmering climax proclaiming that the prince and princess will live happily ever after.