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Throughout the 1930's, Walt Disney made great strides with his series of Silly Symphony cartoons. The series, without any continuing characters, was based on animated actions carefully timed to music. The Skeleton Dance (1929) led off the series, creating a sensation and opening the door to over 70 Silly Symphonies to follow during the next decade. Flowers and Trees (1932) introduced Technicolor's three-color process to animation and was followed by such classics as The Three Little Pigs, The Grasshopper and the Ants, The Tortoise and the Hare, The Country Cousin, and Who Killed Cock Robin?

Disney's first full-length animated feature, SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS, was released late in 1937, and its success was a major factor in the demise of the Silly Symphonies. The "Sillies" had been regarded by Walt Disney as mere stepping stones toward his goal of animated features. SNOW WHITE set a standard of excellence, and Disney knew he could produce no more shorts based on music that did not measure up to its quality. He would have to "plus" the shorts. Most of the Silly Symphonies had been based on original music written by Disney composers Frank Churchill and Leigh Harline. To make a departure from the pattern, Disney decided to select a piece of music which already had a story to it. The search for the right piece began almost a year before SNOW WHITE was completed.

There was no argument when Paul Dukas' "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" was suggested. Here would be the perfect piece of music for trying out the new premise. The legend of the wayward apprentice, who experimented with his mentor's powers and discovered he could not handle them, was first set down by Lucian in the second century. In the early years of the 19th century, Goethe penned a ballad poem using the legend, which he titled "Der Zauberlehrling." Goethe's poem was first published in English as "The Apprentice to Magic" in 1830. The French composer, Paul Dukas (1865-1935), used Goethe's poem as the basis for an orchestral piece, "L'Apprentisorcier" was first presented at the Societe Nationale de Musique in Paris in 1897 and was published the following year by Durand et Fils. The first performance in England took place in 1899.

There had been two previous uses of "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" in films. One was a short entitled The Wizard's Apprentice, made by Hugo Reisenfeld and the Artcinema Association for United Artists release around 1930, and the other a dramatized version of Goethe’s poem produced and distributed a few years later by the Compagnie Francaise de Films in Paris.

In May, 1937, Walt Disney made his first inquiries into the possibility of purchasing the rights to use the Dukas music in an animated cartoon. Two months later an agreement was signed with the American agent of the publisher. Roy Disney wrote his hrother Walt on July 31, 1937, "We have just received a license for the worldwide use of 'The Sorcerer’s Apprentice' in the following manner: Music composition may be used in one motion picture cartoon for background instrumental use as many times as necessary, throughout length thereof, which may be approximately nine minutes. Music may be used in whole or in part and may be adapted and changed ..." With the rights purchased, Walt Disney began considering the use of a well-known conductor to add some prestige to the project. Leopold Stokowski, conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra since 1912, recalled: "I first met Wall Disney in a restaurant. I was alone having dinner at a table near him, and he called across to me, 'Why don't we sit together?' Then he began to tell me.how he was interested in Dukas' 'The Sorcerer's Apprentice' as a possible short, and did I like the music. I said I liked it very much and would be happy to cooperate with him."
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