Paul Dukas – The Great French Composer and a Critic July 16 2021

A French composer, scholar, critic, and teacher of composition, Paul
Paul Dukas

Abraham Dukas was born in Paris on October 1, 1865.

A diligent man with a modest personality, Paul Dukas was an intense self-critic. For these self-critical characteristics, he destroyed many of his compositions.

While he wrote lots of music in various genres, he only accepted a few that were satisfying. The Sorcerer's Apprentice (L'apprenti sorcier) orchestral piece is his best works that spread the fame to his other works.

Composer Paul Dukas' biography includes a wealth of writings on music and a modest composition output. A Symphony in C major, the opera Ariane et Barbe-Bleue, two other works for solo piano, and a ballet La Peri are his other famous works. Paul Dukas was a man of character.

After French Musicians were divided into progressive and conservative, he didn't side with any but admired both of them. Various known composers of his time inspired his composing career. Some of them are Berlioz, Beethoven, Franck, Debussy and D'Indy. In line with his composing career, Dukas became a music critic, making reviews of five French journals and some of his writings.

Les Écrits de Paul Dukas sur la musique, has Dukas' best essays ever published. Dukas later taught orchestration and composition at the Conservatoire de Paris and the École Normale de Musique. Some of his pupils were Olivier Messiaen, Manuel Ponce, Maurice Durufle, and Joaquin Rodrigo. Dukas is said to be one of the unlucky artists whose compositions are entirely eclipsed by one work; in this case, The Sorcerer's Apprentice. However, composer Paul Dukas took time to provide his insights and aspirations for musical development and his undying love for literature and theatre.


Early Life and Dual Careers

Paul Dukas is a renowned French composer born into a Jewish family in Paris, France. Dukas' father, Jules Dukas, was a successful banker. His mother, a great pianist, died while giving birth to their thirdborn.

At that time, he was five years old. Commonly many talented musicians and composers show signs of their musical talents when they are way too young. This was not the case with Dukas. Though he took piano lessons, he showed no notable musical talent until the age of 14. He began his composition career while convalescing from an illness.

At the age of 16, he enrolled at the Paris Conservatoire, where he studied harmony, piano, and composition. His teachers were Ernest Guiraud, Georges Mathias and Theodore Dubois.

Debussy and Dukas circa 1896

Dukas formed a close friendship with Claude Debussy, one of his fellow students. After graduation, Dukas started his career as a critic and orchestrator.

He won the Prix de Rome prestigious award for his Cantata Velleda in 1888 and took second place in the Conservatoire. Disappointed for not winning the top prize, in 1889, Dukas left the Conservatoire.

After short compulsory military service, his career as a music critic and composer started. In 1892, Dukas' career as a critic kicked off with a review of Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen, published in La Revue Hebdomadaire and Gazette des Beaux-Arts. Dukas became a Chevalier of the Legion of Honor in 1906. Dukas

Paul Dukas performing

was gifted in writing music, and he wrote a lot of music, but his perfectionist nature caused him to destroy many of his works out of dissatisfaction.

He retained only a few compositions. In 1892 he started writing an opera, Horn et Riemenhid but only composed one act. He later realized that the work was more literary than musical.

Dukas composed the Symphony in 1895-96 in his early 30s. His first performance was in January 1896, a dedication to Paul Vidal. Dukas' classical performance was an expression of modernism. The rhythmic patterns, outstanding orchestration, and his new impression show Dukas' premonition of future styles to come.

His way of composition disapproved the common notion that no great symphony has come from French composers. The rest of Dukas' work was mostly dramatic music and piano compositions since he strictly censored most of it that he disliked.

The sorcerer's Apprentice performance was next after the Symphony, which is the best of Dukas´ composition. This short piece composition was based on Der Zauberlehring – Johann Goethe poem. According to the oldest academic journal on music, The sorcerer's Apprentice fame overshadowed all of his other compositions and gave Goethe's original poem more fame.

This symphonic poem was premiered at the Societe Nationale de Musique with Goethe conducting it, and it immediately rose to its popular status. The Sorcerer's Apprentice composition was used in Disney's animation film Fantasia in 1940 and Fantasia 2000.

Paul Dukas autograph music quote signedPaul Dukas - Autograph music quote signed, from "Ariane et Barbe Bleue"


After The Sorcerer's Apprentice

After a massive L'apprenti sorcier success, Dukas finished working on two major works for solo piano; the Piano Sonata and Variations, Interlude and Finale on a theme by Rameau. Edouard Risler -a famous pianist of the time, premiered these incredible works by Dukas.

Piano Sonata (1901) is one of the French composer Dukas' great piano works that extend Robert Schumann, Ludwig van Beethoven, and Franz Liszt traditions. Variations, interlude et final pour piano sur un thème de Rameau of 1903 represent a translation of Beethoven's Diabelli Variations musical style.

For the record, Sonata is not performed often, but pianists like Marc-Andre Hamelin and Margaret Fingerhut have added it to their concerts. According to Edward Lockspeiser's criticism, Sonata is huge yet not so much known by people. Lockspeiser also described the Rameau Variations as more assuring and developed. Another operatic composition by Dukas is Ariane et Barbe-Bleue

Dukas, Paul - Ariane et barbe bleue program 1935 performance in his honor

which is a setting of a libretto by Maurice Maeterlinck.

The opera was produced at the Opera-Comique in 1907 after seven years of handwork.

The opera has musical similarities with Debussy's work which is quite apparent owning that they are both work settings of Maeterlinck.

Despite the considerable praise the Dukas' opera gained, Richard Strauss's opera Salome eclipsed its success which was produced simultaneously. All was not lost, shortly after the premiere, Ariane et Barbe-Bleue was produced in Vienna, and it gained much popularity in Frankfurt, Schoenberg's circle, Milan and New York.

An Italian conductor and a successful musician, Arturo Toscanini conducted the opera in New York, and Sir Thomas Beecham staged it in the famous Covent Gardens in 1937. The opera's interest grew more and attracted productions in Paris (1990), Hamburg (1997), and in 2007 it was produced at the Opera Bastille in Paris.

Another undeniable contribution in the French composer Paul Dukas' biography is his major work, the oriental ballet La Péri in 1912. Ivan Clustine – a Russian dancer, choreographer, and ballet dancer, originally choreographed La Peri, which was first performed in Paris.

If you have not watched La Peri, it's about a man looking for immortality, and he goes to the Ends of the Earth, a place of utmost peace and calmness. He finds a mythical Peri (fairy) holding "the flower of immortality." The composer describes ballet La Peri as a "poeme danse," which means danced poem.

The ballet's opening was tranquil, and to add some appeal, Dukas added a short fanfare- musical flourish played by trumpets and other brass instruments. The fanfare, which was separately performed, gave the noisy audiences time to settle in their seat before the actual performance started.


Personal Life

Apart from his fame as a great French composer, Paul Dukas was a family man. He married Suzanne Pereyra in 1916, a Portuguese descent lady born in 1883. They had one child, Adrienne-Therese, born in 1919.


Dukas Later Years and Death

Paul Dukas at an older age

In the last years of his life, French composer Paul Dukas became a teacher of composition from 1910 to 1912 at the Paris Conservatory.

After Charles-Marie Widor's retirement as a professor of composition, Paul Dukas was appointed in his place.

Some of his students were Yvonne Desportes, Elsa Barraine, Jehan Alain, Carlos Chavez, Maurice Durufle, Olivier Messiaen, Francis Chagrin, Georges Hugon, Jean Langlais, Manuel Ponce, Joaquin Rodrigo, Xian Xinghai and David Van Vactor and they became famous musicians.

Though he was conservative, he was a great teacher who nurtured talents. He encouraged his students to write music from the heart, not always with the head. His teaching method was to help his students – young musicians, to use music to express something.

While being a teacher and after the incredible production of La Peri, Dukas did not complete any other significant compositions though there were reports of major work in progress. After missing on the music composition field for long, Dukas produced a tribute to his life-long friend Debussy in 1920.

The performance was in La plainte, au loin, du faune, for piano, followed by another composition in 1924, Armours for voice and piano. Armour was a Pierre de Ronsard sonnet setting to mark the 400th anniversary of the poet's birth. Dukas was working on a symphonic poem version of Shakespeare's "The Tempest" shortly before his death.

Dukas' fame and success did not end there, he was elected to the Academie des Beaux-Arts membership, and in 1920 he was a member of the Royal Academy of Science, Letters and Fine Arts of Belgium. In the same year, Saint-Saens worked with Dukas to finish opera by Guiraud and editing the works of Jean-Philippe Rameau. In 1921, Gabriel Faure, a French composer, dedicated his piano Quintet to Dukas.



Dukas, Paul - Signed Score "Sonate pour Piano in Mi Bemol Mineur"

Dukas, Paul - Autograph Letter Signed 1908

Albeniz, Isaac - Telegram to Paul Dukas 1902

French Composers - Signed Business Cards 

Composers Autographs section

Composers Manuscripts section 

Concert Programs signed by Composers



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