Henri Dutilleux

1916 2013

Henri Dutilleux



Henri Dutilleux has a reputation as a perfectionist, a fastidious composer with a keen eye for the smallest detail. This means his output is relatively small. This scrupulous nature makes a comparison between him and another 20th Century French composer: Pierre Boulez. They share a drive to meticulously revise pieces but the similarities end here however, as the two could not be further apart in terms of artistic intent. Speaking of Boulez, Dutilleux says, ' ...there are things I cannot accept, and I don't like people who are never in doubt.' This doubting nature defines Dutilleux as an artist, as someone who saw the two opposing forces in music in the 20th Century and decided to hover in between them and find his own way, achieving individual sound colours and harmonies which were rigorously formalised and structured.

Dutilleux was born into an artistic family. His great-grandfather was a painter and friend of Delacroix and Corot. His maternal grandfather, Julien Koszul, was a composer and friend of Fauré and was also the director of the Roubaix Conservatoire. Born in Angers in 1916 he was brought up in Douai. While here he studied piano, harmony and counterpoint with Victor Gallois. He finished in 1933 and moved to Paris where he attended the Paris Conservatoire. During this time he studied harmony with Jean Gallon, fugue with Noël Gallon, history of music with Maurice Emmanuel, conducting with Gaubert and composition with Büsser. The highlight of his time here was winning the Prix de Rome in 1938 with the work, 'L'anneau du roi'. During his studies he was highly influenced byStravinsky and Roussel.

He was in Rome for 4 months enjoying his Prix de Rome award when WWII broke out and he returned to France. In 1939 he was recruited as a stretcher-bearer in the French army. He did not last long however and was demobilized a year later in September 1940, returned to France and picked up work as chef de chant for the Paris Opera. In 1945 he became musical director of French radio and in 1963 resigned so he could concentrate on composing. He held a teaching post at the École normale de Musique de Paris from 1961 to 1970 and also at the Paris Conservatoire for two years afterwards.

His works before 1948 showed a heavy influence of the French tradition, especiallyRavel, but also Stravinsky and Poulenc. He however, discarded all compositions from this time, describing a 1948 work, 'Piano Sonata', written for his wife, Genevieve Joy, as his opus 1. This work decisively leaves behind the Ravel influence and starts him on the path of larger scale form. He embarked on a personal quest but always maintained a strong connection the French music of the past. The material illustrates his growing distance from tonality and is more modal than tonal. The usage of the octatonic mode in the final movement shows a clear influence of Messiaen.

His international breakthrough was achieved with his Symphony No. 1 (1950-51). From here he developed a technique he called'croissance progressive' (incremental growth). The works after the 1st Symphony adhere to this process in the material of themselves and also in relation to each other. On the level of the material this means that a theme is rarely presented in earnest but variations of it evolve bit by bit throughout the work. This is, and Dutilleux admitted as much, related to the work of the literary figure, Marcel Proust. In the third movement there is a theme in several slightly different but related forms which reflect Proust's idea of the instability of human personality. He was obsessed with the temporal connection, the architecture of the pieces, averse to the breaks between movements: 'they spoil music’s power to enchant us' .

His second symphony (1959), 'Le double', is no different in its careful balancing of exquisite sound colours and global structure. The meta connections between works exist here too, the finale of the 2nd Symphony is linked to the material of the slow movement of the 1st and the finale in the second also resembles the opening bars of the next major orchestral piece, 'Metaboles'. These intriguing connections imply that this idea of incremental growth applies across different works. In the 2nd symphony there is a smaller ensemble separated from the orchestra much like a traditionalconcerto grosso setting. The connection is much more subtle however, and the relationship between them shows a composer who was highly concerned with the smallest detail in sound. The soloist ensemble made up of 12 instrumentalists from the orchestra sometimes prolongs the resonance of a chord played by a larger group of instruments, and this interest in sonority can be seen in his later piano works also. 

He was profoundly influenced by Bartók as his work developed, citing him as a major source of inspiration. From 1970s onwards Dutilleux experimented with direct quotations in his work such as a passage fromBartók's Music for Strings, Percussion and Celeste  in his work Trois strophes sur le nom de Sacher . He very much quotes past music as a homage, as opposed to an ironic function. 

The work 'Ainsi la Nuit' (1976) for string quartet was a monumental achievement and also a source of great personal pride for Dutilleux. He intensively studiedBeethoven's string quartets as well as Bartók's and the 'Six Bagatelles' of Webern. The final score consists of seven interrelated movements played without a break. Each one is like an experiment in different string textures and the principle of incremental growth as well as the harmonic rigour ties each tableau together seamlessly, forever glancing forwards and backwards at itself in time. 

The physical appearance of the score was of great importance to Dutilleux. His manuscripts are very impressive to look at and there is clearly a strong visual stimulus driving certain passages. This attention to detail is heard in the exquisite sound objects he presents to the listener and his control of timbre and instrumentation is masterful. It is worth noting that one of his students was the young Gerard Grisey, among the next generation of experts in timbre and in the nature of the sound itself. He left behind him a lasting reputation as a kind, gentle and charming individual. He was known for his generosity and for his modesty – a modesty which kept him out of the big debates about musical thought. The slow growth of his fame reflects the incremental growth he so carefully worked with throughout his career which is a touching and powerful image of an honest and masterful composer; his life reflected in his art.

Black and white images © Guy Vivien