Henri Dutilleux @ 90

Written by: Janet Obi-Keller

The eminent French composer Henri Dutilleux turns 90 on 22 January. Music scholar and pianist Janet Obi-Keller has researched Dutilleux’s oeuvre…

My first impression of Henri Dutilleux when I met him at the end-of-year piano exams in Marseille, France in 1983 was of a man with a suave and rather mysterious demeanour. Since then I have had the wonderful opportunity of researching a selection of his works and the possibility of spending time with him during the process.

Henri Paul Dutilleux was born in Angers on 22 January 1916. Dutilleux began music at an early age and was encouraged by his parents (both amateur musicians) to pursue musical studies at the conservatoire in Douai with Victor Gallois (director 1917-1940). Dutilleux’s maternal grandfather, Julien Koszul (1844-1927), was director of the Roubaix Conservatoire and lifelong friend of Gabriel Fauré. As a talented young student, Dutilleux gained entry to the Paris Conservatoire where he furthered his studies in harmony, composition, fugue and history of music. His eventual success at the Prix de Rome in 1938 helped guarantee him status as a composer. Dutilleux then composed several published and unpublished songs dedicated to the French baritone, Charles Panzéra. Between 1942 and 1950, Claude Delvincourt (director of the Paris Conservatoire 1941-1954) commissioned a series of pieces for the end-of-year exams, which included the Flute Sonatine (1942). It was the Piano Sonata (1947-48 dedicated to his wife Geneviève Joy) a large-scale work, which revealed a significant development in Dutilleux’s musical language. This culminated in a series of commissions for orchestra and small ensembles including Métaboles (1959-64), Tout un monde lointain (1967-70), Ainsi la nuit ((1973-76), Timbres, espace, mouvement (1976-78/1990) and, more recently, Correspondances (2003), where his individual timbre as a composer would become manifest. He also composed for ballet (Le loup, 1953) and for film (L’amour d’une femme, 1953). There is a freedom and flow in his music as seen in his use of arabesque shapes that form an important aspect of his music. This emanates from a natural sense of movement and design.

Dutilleux continues to have an enquiring mind which forces him to continuously question himself – ‘Se mettre en question’ as he puts it. This meticulous and scrutinising approach has meant that he will not allow a work to be published unless he is absolutely convinced that it is ready. Even then he has sometimes decided to retract a work for further changes as was the case with Trois préludes (1973/77/1988) for piano. Other aspects of Dutilleux’s colourful personality reveal an appetite for the more earthly pleasures in life. He always presents himself as the perfect gentleman, impeccably dressed and very courteous.<

As a composer, Dutilleux remains an isolated yet unique musical figure of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. He continues to be true to his vision and to the traditions that form part of his musical heritage. His qualities as a person which include charm, a witty sense of humour and a certain French sensitivity find their way into the essence of his sonority which goes one step further than Debussy and Ravel. Dutilleux’s music stems from a profoundly magical musical universe wherein lies a mystery within each moment.

  • Henri Dutilleux/Schott
  • The above article was written by Janet Obi-Keller for the programme book of Park Lane Group’s Young Artists New Year Series (9-13 January 2006, all recitals reviewed on this site) and is published on Classical Source with the permission of both the author and PLG
  • Park Lane Group

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