Paul Dukas began music at early age, but his talent was not immediately obvious. He nevertheless left compositions that amply deserve to be called masterpieces, such as his best-known piece, The Sorcerer's Apprentice.
Paul Dukas was the son of a banker and an accomplished pianist, though his mother died when he was only five. He showed a certain talent for music, learnt the piano and began to compose at the age of 14. In 1881, at the age of 16, he entered the Paris conservatoire and studied piano with Georges Mathias, harmony with Théodore Dubois and composition with Ernest Guiraud. He obtained distinctions in counterpoint and fugue. A second place in the Prix de Rome in 1888 discouraged him from continuing his studies at the conservatoire.
He accordingly embarked on a career as music critic. He wrote in the leading specialised reviews of the time: Minerve, La Chronique des Arts, the Gazette des Beaux-Arts, Le Courrier Musical, and in particular La Revue Hebdomadaire, for which in 1892 he wrote an article on the Ring Cycle by Richard Wagner, in a performance at Covent Garden conducted by Gustav Mahler. The premiere in 1891 of his overture Polyeucte, conducted by Charles Lamoureux, launched his career as a successful composer. In 1895, Paul Dukas was involved in editing the complete works of Rameau, then in 1897, he composed the piece that subsequently become a global success: The Sorcerer's Apprentice, inspired by Goethe's poem, Der Zauberlehrling. His opera Ariane et Barbe-Bleue was first performed in 1907 to wide acclaim, though some critics regretted the continued influence of Debussy and his Pelléas et Mélisande: both works were written to a libretto by Maurice Maeterlinck and gave the orchestra a predominant role.
In 1910, Paul Dukas began teaching orchestration at the Paris conservatoire and in 1928 succeeded Charles-Marie Widor as head of the composition and orchestration class. His students included Olivier Messiaen, Jehan Alain, Maurice Duruflé, Jean Hubeau and Jean Langlais. In 1916, he settled in Sainte-Maxime to do editorial work on old music and works by Beethoven. Unfortunately, during the last years of his life, an excessive perfectionism led him to destroy some of his compositions: a second symphony, a symphonic poem, a sonata for violin and piano, an opera and two ballets. His last masterpiece was a ballet called La Péri, first performed in 1912, which only just escaped being destroyed and lost.
Six landmark dates in the life of Paul Dukas:
1881: entered the Paris conservatoire
1888: disappointed by second place in the Prix de Rome and left the conservatoire
1892: wrote an article on the Ring Cycle conducted by Mahler at Covent Garden
1895: contributed to the publication of Rameau's complete works
1928: succeeded Widor as teacher of composition and orchestration
1934: elected to the Académie des Beaux Arts, where he succeeded Alfred Bruneau
Six key works by Paul Dukas:
1891: Overture to Polyeucte
1896: Symphony in C
1897: The Sorcerer's Apprentice
1899: Piano Sonata in E flat minor
1906: Ariane et Barbe-bleue, opera in 3 acts
1912: La Péri, ballet
Bibliography compiled from Radio France documentation, October 2014