Wednesday, 15 October 2014

The Sorcerer's Apprentice

When music scholar and popularizer Deems Taylor (currently voiced by Corey Burton) introduced The Sorcerer’s Apprentice in Fantasia, he observed its contrast with the more abstract and emotive pieces like Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor.  “And now we're going to hear a piece of music that tells a very definite story,” Taylor says. “As a matter of fact, in this case, the story came first and the composer wrote the music to go with it.” That is true, though he overshoots the age of the story as we know it by a little bit: “It's a very old story, one that goes back almost 2,000 years.”

Concept painting of The Sorcerer's Apprentice.
The version to which Taylor is possibly referring is the story Philopseudes by the Greek writer Lucian. Written in 150 CE, it tells the familiar story of the young Eucrates who eavesdrops on his friend, the Egyptian sorcerer and priest of Isis named Pancrates. Curious to try out what he overhears, Eucrates gives life to various household objects, including a broom and a pestle, only to have things spin out of his control.

'When I was a young man, I passed some time in Egypt, my father having sent me to that country for my education. I took it into my head to sail up the Nile to Coptus, and thence pay a visit to the statue of Memnon, and hear the curious sound that proceeds from it at sunrise. In this respect, I was more fortunate than most people, who hear nothing but an indistinct voice: Memnon actually opened his lips, and delivered me an oracle in seven hexameters; it is foreign to my present purpose, 34or I would quote you the very lines. Well now, one of my fellow passengers on the way up was a scribe of Memphis, an extraordinarily able man, versed in all the lore of the Egyptians. He was said to have passed twenty-three years of his life underground in the tombs, studying occult sciences under the instruction of Isis herself.' 'You must mean the divine Pancrates, my teacher,' exclaimed Arignotus; 'tall, clean-shaven, snub-nosed, protruding lips, rather thin in the legs; dresses entirely in linen, has a thoughtful expression, and speaks Greek with a slight accent?' 'Yes, it was Pancrates himself. I knew nothing about him at first, but whenever we anchored I used to see him doing the most marvellous things,--for instance, he would actually ride on the crocodiles' backs, and swim about among the brutes, and they would fawn upon him and wag their tails; and then I realized that he was no common man. I made some advances, and by imperceptible degrees came to be on quite a friendly footing with him, and was admitted to a share in his mysterious arts. The end of it was, that he prevailed on me to leave all my servants behind at Memphis, and accompany him alone; assuring me that we should not want for attendance. This plan we accordingly 35followed from that time onwards. Whenever we came to an inn, he used to take up the bar of the door, or a broom, or perhaps a pestle, dress it up in clothes, and utter a certain incantation; whereupon the thing would begin to walk about, so that every one took it for a man. It would go off and draw water, buy and cook provisions, and make itself generally useful. When we had no further occasion for its services, there was another incantation, after which the broom was a broom once more, or the pestle a pestle. I could never get him to teach me this incantation, though it was not for want of trying; open as he was about everything else, he guarded this one secret jealously. At last one day I hid in a dark corner, and overheard the magic syllables; they were three in number. The Egyptian gave the pestle its instructions, and then went off to the market. Well, next day he was again busy in the market: so I took the36 pestle, dressed it, pronounced the three syllables exactly as he had done, and ordered it to become a water-carrier. It brought me the pitcher full; and then I said: Stop: be water-carrier no longer, but pestle as heretofore. But the thing would take no notice of me: it went on drawing water the whole time, until at last the house was full of it. This was awkward: if Pancrates came back, he would be angry, I thought (and so indeed it turned out). I took an axe, and cut the pestle in two. The result was that both halves took pitchers and fetched water; I had two water-carriers instead of one. This was still going on, when Pancrates appeared. He saw how things stood, and turned the water-carriers back into wood; and then he withdrew himself from me, and went away, whither I knew not.'

That story is part of a larger narrative, in which Lucian satirizes belief in tall tales and fantastic events: “'Oh, stop!' I cried: 'if the thought that you are old men is not enough to deter you from talking this trash, at least remember who is present: if you do not want to fill these boys' heads with ghosts and hobgoblins, postpone your grotesque horrors for a more suitable occasion. Have some mercy on the lads: do not accustom them to listen to a tangle of superstitious stuff that will cling to them for the rest of their lives, and make them start at their own shadows.'” The name of the book, Philopseudes, translates to “Lover of Lies.”

The version we know, and upon which the symphonic piece was based, is Der Zauberlehrling, a 14-stanza poem published by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe in 1797. Goethe was a leading writer in German Romanticism, which is the literary, artistic, and musical movement that emphasized the merit of emotion, intuition, and imagination against the stifling Rationalism of the Enlightenment. He was no stranger to the themes of magicians dealing with powers beyond their control, having begun work on the classic Faust in 1772 and publishing an early version in 1790 (the complete play was published in two parts in 1828 and 1831). It seems natural that, as a Romantic writer, he would be concerned with the themes of calling up powerful subconscious forces that could escalate with unforeseen consequences.

The following translation of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice is by Edwin Zeydel, published in 1955:

That old sorcerer has vanished
And for once has gone away!
Spirits called by him, now banished,
My commands shall soon obey.
Every step and saying
That he used, I know,
And with sprites obeying
My arts I will show. 
Flow, flow onward
Stretches many
Spare not any
Water rushing,
Ever streaming fully downward
Toward the pool in current gushing. 
Come, old broomstick, you are needed,
Take these rags and wrap them round you!
Long my orders you have heeded,
By my wishes now I've bound you.
Have two legs and stand,
And a head for you.
Run, and in your hand
Hold a bucket too. 
Flow, flow onward
Stretches many,
Spare not any
Water rushing,
Ever streaming fully downward
Toward the pool in current gushing. 
See him, toward the shore he's racing
There, he's at the stream already,
Back like lightning he is chasing,
Pouring water fast and steady.
Once again he hastens!
How the water spills,
How the water basins
Brimming full he fills! 
Stop now, hear me!
Ample measure
Of your treasure
We have gotten!
Ah, I see it, dear me, dear me.
Master's word I have forgotten! 
Ah, the word with which the master
Makes the broom a broom once more!
Ah, he runs and fetches faster!
Be a broomstick as before!
Ever new the torrents
That by him are fed,
Ah, a hundred currents
Pour upon my head! 
No, no longer
Can I please him,
I will seize him!
That is spiteful!
My misgivings grow the stronger.
What a mien, his eyes how frightful! 
Brood of hell, you're not a mortal!
Shall the entire house go under?
Over threshold over portal
Streams of water rush and thunder.
Broom accurst and mean,
Who will have his will,
Stick that you have been,
Once again stand still! 
Can I never, Broom, appease you?
I will seize you,
Hold and whack you,
And your ancient wood
I'll sever,
With a whetted axe I'll crack you. 
He returns, more water dragging!
Now I'll throw myself upon you!
Soon, O goblin, you'll be sagging.
Crash! The sharp axe has undone you.
What a good blow, truly!
There, he's split, I see.
Hope now rises newly,
And my breathing's free. 
Woe betide me!
Both halves scurry
In a hurry,
Rise like towers
There beside me.
Help me, help, eternal powers! 
Off they run, till wet and wetter
Hall and steps immersed are Iying.
What a flood that naught can fetter!
Lord and master, hear me crying! -
Ah, he comes excited.
Sir, my need is sore.
Spirits that I've cited
My commands ignore. 
"To the lonely
Corner, broom!
Hear your doom.
As a spirit
When he wills, your master only
Calls you, then 'tis time to hear it."

A century after Goethe penned his words, French composer Paul Dukas wrote a symphonic tone poem inspired by it. Taylor was correct in stating that Dukas’ piece followed a definite narrative, and Goethe’s poem is traditionally published in the symphony programme. Such music is called “programmatic” in how it is intended to illustrate a story that refers to something beyond the music itself. In this case, Dukas creates a soundtrack to Goethe’s poem. Fantasia by its very nature, turns most of its pieces into programmatic music by adding animated vignettes along with them. The only major exception is the Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, which Taylor identifies as “absolute music.” He describes this antithesis to programmatic music as “music that exists simply for its own sake.”

The Sorcerer’s Apprentice is, sadly, Dukas’ only lasting success. Other works like Ariane and Bluebeard are virtually unknown, a situation that was not helped by his having destroyed many of his own works later in his life. Not only that, but Mickey Mouse is the main reason for the longevity of that one piece. Orrin Howard of the Los Angeles Philharmonic bemoans Dukas’ fate: “Pity the poor one-piece composer. Not the composer who writes only one piece, but the musical creator who enjoys far-reaching success with one of his works but is destined never to repeat that achievement with any other.”

Originally, it was not supposed to have been Mickey Mouse at all. When settling on a suitable character to be the sorcerer Yensid’s hapless apprentice, Walt’s initial intent was to utilize Dopey. A careful eye might pick out the striking similarities between the two.

A Walt Disney Imagineering pin of Dopey in the Sorcerer's Hat, and a pin of Sorcerer Mickey.

Nevertheless, it was a good role for Mickey and for Dukas. The Mouse got some eyeballs, his first major motion picture role, and one might argue that The Sorcerer’s Apprentice helped solidify him as Disney’s corporate icon. For Dukas, it popularized a work that has since endured and is heard by millions of people every year, whether they even realize it or not. Certainly neither he nor Goethe had an affable rodent in mind when they put pen to paper, but it is hard to argue with that kind of longevity.

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