Henri Dutilleux at 85

Written by: David Wordsworth

The great French composer Henri Dutilleux was 85 on January 22nd. He occupies a unique place in the music of our time, which is especially extraordinary considering that his reputation rests on no more than 10 major works. By Dutilleux’s own admission, and regret, he works very slowly, but so perfectly realised and crafted are the finished products that he allows out of his workshop that the musical world literally holds its breath every time there is a rumour of a new piece.

Dutilleux firmly refutes the idea that he was a gifted child, though he was composing by the age of 13. He studied at the Paris Conservatoire (his fellow-student Paul Tortelier became a life-long friend), but his career was interrupted by the outbreak of the second war. Varied positions followed – teacher of harmony, arranger of nightclub music (how I would love to hear some of that!), chorus-master at the Paris Opera, and for many years he held various senior positions at French Radio. These onerous responsibilities quite clearly took their toll on Dutilleux’s compositional activity – with such a short time to compose each day it is perhaps unsurprising that the only major works to appear during the 1950s were the two symphonies. After that period, though hardly prolific, Dutilleux has written a series of works of a constantly high quality, which in a relatively short time have found their way into the orchestral repertoire.

Dutilleux is a man of wide culture, independent, with a surprisingly wide knowledge of new music (he speaks particularly warmly of young British composers, who in turn are devoted to him). He has never belonged to any school, standing well-apart from his older compatriot Messiaen and the younger Pierre Boulez whose dictatorial control over Parisian musical life in the 1960s and 1970s accounts for the fact that Dutilleux’s reputation seems to be so much higher in the UK and USA than it is in France. It is astonishing to report that it took a British orchestra (the CBSO under Sakari Oramo) to play Dutilleux’s work for the first time in the Citie de la Musique a couple of years ago – this ridiculous situation is akin to banning Tippett from the Barbican!

If there is a composer that comes to mind when listening to Dutilleux’s early work it is Ravel – both composers have the same fastidious and painstaking attitude to their work, the same remarkable ear for orchestration, a common harmonic richness and, I imagine, much the same personal qualities. Dutilleux is what one might describe in old-fashioned terms as ’the perfect gentleman’, and perhaps the classic example of a composer behaving like his music – an immense hidden strength and determination, an elegance, and a seriousness of purpose which, when one gets to know him a little, hides a refined wit and twinkle in the eye. The debt to Ravel, and perhaps to a lesser extent, Roussel, is clear in the early works, most of which Dutilleux has destroyed. Though he has not culled others, one rather gets the impression that he wishes he had – this includes the charming Sonatina for Flute & Piano (1942). I have sat with the composer on a couple of occasions and watched him almost bristle with impatience. On one occasion a respected flautist came to the composer and asked him to inscribe the music. Dutilleux, charming as ever, duly obliged muttering something about “this old work”. The player responded: “Well Maitre, if you will write us a new piece… “. Dutilleux merely smiled and said, “Perhaps!” As he already has a long, long list of requests I would not want flautists to get too excited!

Dutilleux’s first acknowledged work (almost!) is his magnificent Piano Sonata (1947) written for his wife Genevieve Joy – recordings show Joy to be the most remarkable pianist, well up to the considerable demands of this major piece. Stories abound amongst Joy’s pupils about her remarkable ability to sight-read the most complex twentieth-century scores at the piano – Madame continues to be a formidable presence in the Maitre’s life.

Excepting the pretty-much disowned ballet, Le Loup, Dutilleux’s first major orchestral work, Symphony No.1, did not appear until 1950, by which time the composer was already in his mid-thirties. This work shows for the first time some of Dutilleux’s characteristic techniques – a joy of sound itself, a love of a certain type of sonority, rich brass chords and lush (not to say very demanding) string writing (ask any double bass players that have had to find their way around the multiple divided harmonics in The Shadows of Time). Dutilleux often presents the orchestral families in blocks of sound: Symphony No2 Le Double (1959) takes the process even further by having a group of twelve players separated from the main orchestra – the influences of plainchant and big-band jazz (one of Dutilleux’s great loves) become more apparent. A fondness not so much for traditional forms but continual and developing variation gives rise to a rare fluidity and improvisational quality, particularly evident in Metaboles premiered by George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra in 1964, one in a series of American commissions that illustrate Dutilleux’s standing in the United States. Above all an economy of means with each note being in what seems exactly the right place at the right time help create that magical sound that only Dutilleux conjures up.

Dutilleux has denied ever writing programme music and yet most of his works
have the most poetic titles – the Cello Concerto, Tout un monde lointain (1968-70), the Violin Concerto, L’Arbre des songes (1983-85) and the beautiful String Quartet, Ainsi la nuit (1975-76). The concertos are characterised by a sort of spiritual fantasy rather than flashy virtuosity. Dutilleux tells how when writing L’Arbre des songes for Isaac Stern that he studied all the virtuoso pieces he could find – Ysaye, Wieniawski, Paganini – but just could not bring himself to write such music. Indeed it is this spiritual quality that seems to be a part of every Dutilleux creation – each piece carrying a message of wisdom, warmth and humanity.

Dutilleux’s latest work, The Shadows of Time (1995-97), written for the Boston Symphony Orchestra, shows that the composer has lost none of his magic – the message here is the passing of time and the effect that this has on our forgetting the evils of the world, not least those of World War II. A lone child poignantly sings, quoting Anne Frank, “Why us? Why the Star?”. Dutilleux creates some of his most ravishing and keenly imagined orchestral sounds. Time may pass, but with a new work for Dawn Upshaw, the Berlin Philharmonic and Simon Rattle almost finished and other new works being thought about, let us hope that there are many more productive years ahead for Henri Dutilleux, and continued good health for this remarkable man.

Happy Birthday Dear Maitre and Thank You.

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