In today’s post we are going to talk about the classic tale of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. For many of you, when I mention this story title, you are probably taken back to that famous segment of Walt Disney’s film, Fantasia, which stars Mickey Mouse as the apprentice who wages a losing battle against some magical mops because he had used a magic spell to get his work done instead of doing the work himself. If this is the image that you have then congratulations because what Walt Disney ended up doing with Fantasia was very innovative and important. We will talk about that in greater detail below. But first, did you know that the story of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice is over 225 years old?! In fact, there have been three major iterations of this story spread liberally over those two and a quarter centuries. Each iteration was unique to the others, each was revolutionary at the time of its debut and each was extremely well-received by critics and public audiences, too. So, let’s travel back in time to 1797 and to Germany, where the story of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice truly begins.
In 1797, one of the world’s great thinkers, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was busy writing and speaking on matters of philosophy, politics, literature, music, religion, botany and much more. Goethe’s ideas ended up becoming some of the foundational precepts that have guided the development of western civilization. His novels are listed among the most important and influential in history. He is revered as a mentor to famed philosophers such as Hegel, Schopenhauer, Neitzsche and Carl Jung. In the field of The Arts, Goethe was acknowledged as a master of literary criticism and review, as well as that of classical music compositions by the likes of Beethoven, Mozart and Mahler. Goethe was also a poet. In 1797, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe wrote a fourteen stanza poem entitled Dar Zauberlehrling. In English, we know the title as The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.
Goethe’s poem tells the tale of a sorcerer who leaves the cleaning of his workshop to his young apprentice. Before going, the sorcerer leaves strict instructions with the apprentice to not touch any of the magical equipment that was located throughout the workshop and, most importantly of all, not to open the sorcerer’s spellbook and say any spells out loud. The sorcerer leaves the apprentice to his chores and exits the workshop. The apprentice gets to work but soon tires of his chores. Seeking an easy way out of having to do his work, the apprentice disobeys the sorcerer by opening his spellbook to look for a spell that would cause magic to do the work for him. The apprentice discovers a spell that he thinks might work for him. He states the spell aloud. Before he knows it, the mop begins to work on its own but, in doing so, it works too quickly and makes an even bigger mess. The apprentice panics because he does not know how to undo the spell and so he attempts to break the mop in half in order to stop it. But, breaking the mop actually causes new mops to spring up from the broken pieces. Now there are multiple mops all working frantically, much to the chagrin of the apprentice. In despair, the apprentice cries aloud for help. His cries are heard by the sorcerer who was returning to his shop. The sorcerer is able to stop the mops, undo the spell and save his workshop from further damage. The apprentice learns a valuable lesson in the process which is that if you want a job done well then do it right the first time. The life lesson contained in Dar Zauberlehrling resonated with German audiences who recognized that Goethe was using his poem to set out some rules for living a good and honourable life. This particular lesson spoke to the industrious nature of the German people and, as such this poem and the lesson it contained quickly became part of the fabric of German society.
For 100 years, Dar Zauberlehrling by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was the definitive version that the world knew. But then, someone gazed upon this story with new eyes and came up with a completely original take on Goethe’s classic tale. In 1897, a French composer named Paul Dukas began creating works that he called “symphonic poems”. In simple terms, what Dukas decided to do was to create a musical score to accompany famous poems, speeches and dramatic scenes from plays. In this instance, he created a short symphony in which his notes and chords acted as the words of the poem. His music told the story of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice in dramatic crescendos and quiet lulls. Dukas created a libretto to go with his symphony. *(A libretto was like a theatrical programme or small book that was given to audience members. For The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, Dukas wrote out the words to Goethe’s poem so that audience members could follow the “action” and understand why his music rose and fell as it did). While the scoring of written works was not originated by Dukas, his version of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice was a huge hit and became the gold standard by which other musical scores were measured. In fact, the score for The Sorcerer’s Apprentice became the most popular work that Paul Dukas managed in his lifetime.
Fast forward to the 1930s. Walt Disney was at the forefront of a new technology called movie animation. Instead of using film in the traditional way that was used in Hollywood, Disney and his team of animators had perfected a way of turning thousands of drawings or cells into a form of moving picture as well. In the late 1920s, Disney unveiled one of the first animated short features in the world. It was called “Steamboat Willie” and featured a character that came to be known as Mickey Mouse. Disney’s innovation struck a chord with the general public. Encouraged by the positive reception “Steamboat Willie” had, Disney and his team decided to reach higher and to go further than any animator had ever done before. This resulted in full length animated movies such as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, along with Sleeping Beauty. When audiences saw these new movies, Mickey Mouse drifted into the background in terms of popularity. But Walt Disney was a loyal man and had a soft spot in his heart for the character that allowed his creative dreams to come true. So, Disney decided to create something original as a vehicle to rejuvenate Mickey Mouse’s image. The idea that Walt Disney had was to create a short movie that would be part of a series called “Silly Symphonies”. In this short movie, Disney decided to attempt something that hadn’t been done before…he wanted to pair animation with established pieces of classical music. For Mickey Mouse’s short movie, Walt Disney chose the Paul Dukas score of Goethe’s story of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. As the animation was filmed, the Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra played the Dukas score. Soon, the fully scored, animated short movie that became known as Walt Disney’s Sorcerer’s Apprentice was complete. The only problem was that by the time they were finished, Disney was over budget. Way over budget. He was informed by his accountants that there was no way he would ever recoup his investment because the audience for short films was dwindling. Disney’s success with Snow White had changed viewing habits. Audiences now expected longer, more detailed stories. Cursed by his own success, Walt Disney had two choices: abandon “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” or else, use it as part of something longer…something more in keeping with a full length movie. As we know, Walt Disney stuck to his creative guns and, instead of placing his short film in a warehouse to be forgotten, he went ahead and created eight other “Silly Symphonies’ using the same animators and same orchestra. With nine animated scores finished, Walt Disney assembled them all in one unified movie and called it Fantasia.
Fantasia was a huge hit with critics and modern audiences alike. It remains one of Disney’s most popular movies even to this day. There are two reasons why Fantasia has come to be regarded as one of Walt Disney’s most important and innovative films. First of all, he accomplished a very important thing by taking classical music out of the concert hall and introducing it to a mass audience who, otherwise would probably never have been exposed to the works of Igor Stravinsky, Johann Sebastian Bach, Tchaikovsky and so on. Secondly, Fantasia caused Mickey Mouse to become a popular character again. In doing so, Mickey Mouse became the “face” of Walt Disney’s world which he envisioned as being much more than simply a movie animation studio. Because of the popularity of Mickey Mouse, Disney World came to be built, whole lines of merchandise were created and sold and much, much more.
Our world is made better because of people with a positive creative vision. All throughout its history, the story of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice has resonated in a way that few stories have. It was first a poem that was used to instill proper human virtues for living a good and proper life. Then, that lesson was taken further a century later by marrying a musical score with a literary work. Half a century after that, the idea was taken a final step further when a literary work with a musical score was provided with animated visuals to aid in the telling of the story. So, read The Sorcerer’s Apprentice as a poem, listen to it as a symphony or watch it as an animated film. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Paul Dukas and Walt Disney have all brought their own brand of genius to bear and we are all the better for it.
The link to the video for The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, as it appears in the movie, Fantasia, can be found in two parts, here and here.
The link to the official movie trailer for the original 1940 version of Fantasia can be found here.
The link to the official website for Johann Wolfgang von Goethe can be found here.
The link to the official website for Paul Dukas can be found here.
The link to the official website for Walt Disney can be found here.
The link to the classical music station that streams live to the world from my hometown of Cobourg, Ontario, Canada….Classical 103.1 FM….can be found here.
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