Paul Dukas' music, like his life, straddled the Romantic and modern periods (and encompassed a still wider range of influences), and he remained true to classical structures well into the twentieth century.
Born in 1865 to the family of a cultured Parisian banker, he was the second of three children; his mother was the musician in the family, and she died when he was five. He studied the piano without displaying special aptitude in music until he was 14. While convalescing from an illness, he started composing, and from that point on, he gravitated toward music, enrolling at the Paris Conservatoire when he was 16. He studied harmony, piano, conducting, and orchestration, and at 17, he wrote his first two adult compositions, overtures to Goethe
's Götz von Berlichingen and Shakespeare
's King Lear. He formally studied composition with Ernest Guiraud but left the conservatory in 1888, frustrated over his inability to win any prizes for his early work and being confronted by the military draft. Following his service in the army, he returned to civilian life as a critic and composer, enjoying his first success in the latter capacity in 1892 with the premiere of his overture Polyeucte. The same year, he began the first of several attempts to compose an opera, but he was to see no success in that genre for years to come; rather, he wrote his two most well-known instrumental works: the Symphony in C (1896) and The Sorcerer's Apprentice (1897). The latter, based on Goethe
's "Der Zauberlehrling," became one of the most popular orchestral works of the late Romantic era with its rich coloration, and it was quickly taken into the repertory of conductors around the world. For the next decade, he devoted himself to an opera, Ariane et Barbe-bleue, based on the work of Maurice Maeterlinck, while continuing to write criticism and completing his Sonata for piano in E flat minor (1900). Dukas completed his ballet La Péri in 1912, but his later output was blighted by an increasingly self-critical outlook, which caused him to abandon and destroy many works. Only four pieces from the last 23 years of his life ever saw the light of day. In his final decades, Dukas achieved renown as a teacher and his students included Messiaen
. In 1940, five years after his death, Dukas and The Sorcerer's Apprentice became enshrined in American popular culture through the use of the work in the movie Fantasia.