French composer Paul-Abraham Dukas came from relatively humble beginnings. He was born in Paris on October 1, 1865. Though his interest in music began when he was young, his family was unable to pay for lessons for him. Nevertheless, he began composing when he was just thirteen, and in 1882 he was able to enter the Paris Conservatory, like many composers before him. He studied piano, harmony, and composition, and was finally able to indulge his musical talents. He became friends with fellow students Vincent d'Indy and Claude Debussy, and studied under Ernest Guiraud. Idolizing composers Beethoven and Wagner, and was heavily influenced by Shakespeare and the classical authors. In 1886, he wrote a counterpart and fugue that won the Prix de Rome, then won a second one in 1888 for his cantata Velléda.
Following service in the Army, Dukas returned to music as both a critic and an orchestrator. His writings appeared in both the Revue Hebdomadaire and Gazette des Beaux-Arts, and his collected writings, including essays on Jean-Philippe Rameau, Christoph Gluck, and Hector Berlioz, were published posthumously in the 1948 collection Les Écrits de Paul Dukas sur la Musique. His mastery of orchestration led him back to the Conservatory where he was professor of the orchestral class from 1910 to 1929. In 1927, he was appointed professor of composition, and served in that position until his death in 1935.
Dukas is probably best remembered for his scherzo L'Apprenti Sorcier (The Sorcerer's Apprentice), which was based on the 1797 poem by Goethe, Die Zauberlehrling. Originally adapted from a story by the Greek poet Lucian, it tells of a young apprentice's attempts to lighten his own workload using his master's spells. Following it's 1897 premier in Paris, Dukas's symphonic poem quickly became a favorite of audiences.
Dukas's talents, however, ran far beyond this single piece. He had alread established himself as a composer with his overture to Pierre Corneille's Polyeucte in 1892. His Symphony in C major, first performed in 1896, begins with a feeling of "striving for light after dark," combining the influences of both Franck and Beethoven. The Andante combines the Russian Romanticism of Borodin and Galzunov with French Impressionism, and the final movement pulls together themes from both to heighten the feeling of medieval chivalry that appears throughout.
Throughout his musical career, Dukas carried his reverence for the classical idols. His 1901 Sonata in E-flat minor was an attempt to prolong the tradition of the likes of Beethoven, Schumann, and Liszt, and is one of the last great piano works to do so. In 1903, he wrote Variations, Interlude et final sur un theme de Rameau, in which he combined the French musical idiom and the feel of Beethoven's Diabelli Variations Op. 120.
During this time, Dukas also worked steadily on the opera Ariane et Barbe-Bleue to the libretto by Maurice Maeterlinck. Edvard Grieg was the Belgian poet's original choice to use the libretto (which, unlike Maeterlink's earlier symbolist play, Pelléas et Mélisande, was written specifically as an opera libretto), but Grieg was not interested. Dukas spent seven years composing the masterful opera, which received high praise from fellow composers Arnold Schoenberg, Alexander von Zemlinsky, and even Richard Strauss, who ordinarily had little good to say about the French composition tradition. Ariane premiered at the Paris Opéra-Comique on May 10, 1907, but is almost never staged anymore due to the demands on the lead actress. In contrast to the character of Bluebeard, who sings for a mere five minutes during his time on stage, Ariane sings nearly continuously for two hours, and must have a very broad range.
Dukas's final major work was the 1912 ballet La Péri. It tells the story of Iskender and his search for the flower of immortality, which is in possession of a péri, one of the fairies of Persian myth who are descended from fallen angels. The monumental score required incredible talent, especially from the strings playing fast and precise in their highest register.
After the premier of La Péri, Dukas only published two more pieces, La Plainte au Loin du Faune a piano piece in memory of Debussy published in 1920, and Sonnet de Ronsard, a song setting in 1924. He continued composing, but so harsh was his self-criticism that he burned many of his compositions a few weeks before his death, feeling they did not live up to the standards he set with his earlier pieces. He died in Paris on May 17, 1935, and his ashes were interred in Le Cimetière du Père Lachaise, Division 87 (columbarium), urn 4938.
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