Lumos! Casting light on Paul Dukas

François-Xavier Roth explains why he's championing the music of under-celebrated French composer Paul Dukas

The idea of this programme is to focus on the work of a composer who is very famous and yet at the same time unknown. Dukas is such an important figure in music history – not just in France, but around the world. Unfortunately, he didn’t write very much, but what he did compose is brilliant, and influenced many other composers – Messiaen and Dutilleux, for example.

Leon bakst

A costume illustration for Dukas' ballet La Péri by Leon Bakst

The Sorcerer’s Apprentice is a masterwork for many reasons, including its dimensions, form, orchestration and subject. The story is wonderful, and perfect to set to music. The magical introduction hypnotises the audience, and then they are completely surprised by what comes next.

It’s easy to forget that the orchestration was absolutely new at the time. Dukas invented combinations of instruments that composers from Gustav Holst to John Williams would take from him – woodwind with high strings, for example – and yet we must not forget that he was the first.

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Characteristic high strings and woodwind in the introduction to The Sorcerer's Apprentice.

In a way, this work was also a tragedy for him, because its success at the beginning of his career was so great that he always had the anxiety of being compared with himself and his early triumph. This often happens in music history – Stravinsky is another case with Le Sacre du Printemps. It’s not easy when you have a hit like that at the start of the career. However, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice is a masterpiece and the orchestra loves to play it.

I have only conducted the Symphony in C once before, but it’s gorgeous music – full of contrasts and life. I don’t understand why it’s not played more often – it has all the makings of a blockbuster. The slow movement is very expressive and melancholic, and the finale is brilliant. It’s well written for the orchestra and makes a great impact on the audience.

Polyeucte is a beautiful symphonic tone poem – flowing, suggestive and with a certain fragility. It’s the total opposite of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice and shows another face of Paul Dukas. It was written in admiration of Wagner – there is a French tradition of composers who were fascinated by the German composer – not just Dukas, but the young Debussy and Chausson, for example. But Polyeucte is very original, and extremely well-orchestrated.


A contrast: swelling, legato lines introduce Polyeucte

I’m very glad I can explore Dukas’s work with the LSO, because it is the ideal orchestra to play his music. They have a famously special French colour, which comes from Pierre Monteux and other conductors the LSO has worked in its past, and they produce gorgeous, rich colours that are perfect for the music.

Interview by Ariane Todes

Sunday 22 March

10am-5pm Join in a Discovery Day
7pm Hear Dukas' Polyeucte, Symphony in C and The Sorcerer's Apprentice in concert at the Barbican.