Many important composers at the close of the 19th century wrote for the orchestra with great sophistication. The early symphonies of Gustav Mahler and the tone poems of Richard Strauss demand virtuosic playing from all sections of the orchestra, recognizing that brilliant orchestration can contribute to a piece's expressive power just as effectively as melody and harmony. Indeed, Rimsky-Korsakov's famous orchestral suite Scheherazade, composed in 1888, depends more on variety of orchestral color than on any thematic development or harmonic poignancy. In France, the artistic movement of Impressionism had begun to exert its influence on music, as most clearly evidenced by Debussy's Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, first performed in 1895. Paul Dukas was friends with Debussy, who had become well acquainted with the practices of Rimsky-Korsakov by spending some time in Russia early in his own career.
As had innumerable composers before him, Dukas turned for inspiration to the literary work of Goethe, intrigued by the surreal scene captured in the ballad Der Zauberlehrling (The Sorcerer's Apprentice). Most modern audience members, especially in the United States, cannot resist associating the piece with its use in the Disney film Fantasia. Except for allowing a cartoon mouse to step into the title role, the Disney representation is surprisingly true to Goethe's original narrative. The music was, after all, composed to fit the story, rather than the other way around. Dukas followed the ballad very closely, as the following excerpts from the lengthy original demonstrate:
As earlier audiences might be expected to be familiar with Goethe, so are modern audiences familiar with Disney. The association, while perhaps telling us more about modern culture than about Dukas' tone poem, is nonetheless valuable. This delightful piece by an otherwise obscure composer deserves a secure place in the orchestral repertoire.