Henri Dutilleux is a 20th century French composer, among those most frequently performed in France and abroad. His role in contemporary music is defined by a certain continuity with French tradition, great attention to detail in each new composition, and a body of work that, though sparse, is comprised of immensely inspired works.
Dutilleux follows on from the impressionist movement and its main representative, Debussy, and provides a transition between the broadening of the harmonic spectrum in the early 20th century (Ravel) and the spectral music of the latter half of the century (Murail or Grisey). He also adopts a symphonist approach that situates him closer to Mahler or Bruckner, in search of new orchestral sonorities.
« Basically, aside from any question of personal inclination, I think I might very well have become a serial musician, momentarily. There's a certain mindset, a sort of rigorousness that was quite in keeping with my character. »
He began studying music in Douai, then entered the Paris Conservatoire. His early compositions reflect a certain cautiousness in the choice of genre, harmony, rhythmic and stylistic content (the sonata form and counterpoint), but at the same time endeavour to break free from the established, formal models. In the 1950s, Henri Dutilleux became increasingly recognised, asserting his originality through measured but decisive innovations.
« This concern for musical time can be felt in the form of my scores. I think the broader forms were the result of two quite major, strong influences: first Beethoven's influence (translated quite freely, moreover), then that of the Vienna School, which definitely marked me, not to mention our whole French musical background. I also received a distinctive perception of time from the oriental world: this is where I felt a certain influence from oriental art, more than in timbres or new instruments. »
However Dutilleux remained on the sidelines of the musical world and was considered old-fashioned by his contemporaries. Dutilleux was popular with international audiences into the 1980s. His works, which were the outcome of a lengthy creative process and painstakingly attention to detail, were performed and sometimes commissioned by leading performers, such as Isaac Stern, Mstislav Rostropovich, the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the Berlin Philharmonic.
« I've always wanted to work in the field of form and feel I'd discovered something, whether it was by writing 'Mystère de l'instant' for Paul Sacher or, in a totally different approach, my symphony "Le Double", or "Métaboles". I constantly avoided adjusting my style to a prefabricated form. »
Dutilleux's body of work is not made up of a large number of pieces. They are inspired by and reflect the composer's thoughts on another work (pictorial, literary or a musical genre), or his work on a specific atmosphere, generated by the performer (a soloist or an orchestra) and the orchestration effects.
Six landmark dates in the life of Dutilleux:
• 1935-38: graduated from the Conservatoire in 3 subjects (harmony, counterpoint and fugue) and won the Premier Grand Prix de Rome for his cantata, L'Anneau du Roi.
• 1943: got a job at Radio France, where Dutilleux worked for 20 years.
• 1961: became a teacher at the Ecole Normale de Musique.
• 1967: Awarded the Grand prix national de la musique for his entire body of work.
• 2004: Received the Grand-Croix de la Légion d’Honneur medal.
• 2005: Ernst von Siemens Prize; awarded to Dutilleux for the "poetic clarity" of his body of work.
Six key works by Dutilleux:
• 1959: Symphony No. 2 "Le Double", written for the 75th anniversary of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. This dialogue between a chamber ensemble and an orchestra is reminiscent of the concerto principle.
• 1965: Métaboles, an orchestral work commissioned by George Szell to mark the 40th anniversary of the Cleveland Orchestra. The recording of this work earned Dutilleux the President of the Republic's Grand Prix.
• 1970: Tout un monde lointain, a concerto for cello in 5 movements, first performed by Rostropovitch and the Orchestre de Paris. The work captures the universe of Baudelaire's poetry, as suggested by the title, which is taken from "La Chevelure" (a poem in Les Fleurs du mal). It was a huge success.
• 1978: Timbres, espace, mouvement, a work for orchestra subtitled "La nuit étoilée" (The Starry Night) in reference to the painting by Van Gogh. First performed by the Washington Orchestra conducted by Rostropovich.
• 1985: Violin Concero, or L'Arbre des Songes (The Tree of Dreams), commissioned by Radio France for Isaac Stern.
• 2003: Correspondances pour voix et orchestre, commissioned by the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Sir Simon Rattle.