A precocious musician, although not particularly bright in his studies, Paul Dukas nevertheless gave us compositions which largely deserve to be considered masterpieces, such as L’Apprenti sorcier.
Paul Dukas is the son of a banker and an accomplished pianist. Motherless at the age of five, he however proves to have a great gift for music. He learns the piano and starts composing at the age of fourteen.
In 1881, at the age of sixteen, he enters the Conservatoire de Paris and studies the piano with Georges Mathias, harmony in the class of Théodore Dubois and composition with Ernest Guiraud. He only earns a first prize in composition and fugue. A second Prix de Rome, in 1888, finishes to put him off with studies and he gives up the Conservatoire.
Paul Dukas then starts a career as a musical critic. He writes in the greatest specialized newspapers at the time: Minerve, La Chronique des Arts, La Gazette des Beaux-Arts, Le Courrier Musical, and above all La Revue Hebdomadaire for which he writes, in 1892, an article about Richard Wagner’s Tetralogy, directed in Covent Garden by Gustav Mahler.
Otherwise, the premiere in 1891 of the overture of Polyeucte under the direction of Charles Lamoureux launches his career as a reknown composer. In 1895, Paul Dukas takes part in the Complete Edition of Rameau’s works, then in 1897, he composes what will become a planetary success: L’Apprenti Sorcier, inspired by the poem Der Zauberlehrling from Goethe.
In 1907, his opera Ariane et Barbe-bleue is successfully premiered, but it causes him problems with the anti-Debussystes who see there another influence from the composer of Pelléas et Mélisande. It is true both works are compared because of the predominance of the orchestral discourse and their common librettist, Maurice Maeterlinck.
In 1910, Paul Dukas embarks on teaching, becoming the tenure holder of the orchestra class at the Conservatoire, which will lead him to succeed Charles-Marie Widor in 1928 to lead the composition and orchestration class. He will have among his students Olivier Messiaen, Jehan Alain, Maurice Duruflé, Jean Hubeau, Jean Langlais.
In 1916, he settles in Sainte-Maxime to make corrections of ancient music and works from Beethoven. Unfortunately, in those last years of his life, his excessive perfectionism pushes him into destroying some of his works: a second symphony, a symphony poem, a violin and piano sonata, a lyrical drama and two ballets. His last masterpiece, the ballet La Péri, premiered in 1912 is said to have had a narrow escape from destruction and forgetting.