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Henri Dutilleux’s Long Life Ends


Henri (file photo)
Henri Dutilleux (file photo)

Henri Dutilleux’s long and distinguished career ended on May 22nd.  He was neither a trend-setter nor a populist; he belonged to no “school” in the nation that brought forth “Les Six,” “La jeune France,” “l’École d’Arceuil,” and so many others.  He sought no solace in bird calls (although he did write a solo piano piece entitled Blackbird).  Nor did he, as did Pierre Boulez, proclaim that “Schoenberg est mort.” Dutilleux was, rather, a Frenchman in the Debussy tradition: he wrote relatively little music compared with any number of his more famous countrymen, but his works are exquisitely crafted, full of ideas that are all his own, pellucid and luminous in timbre, and totally sensitive to harmony. It speaks volumes for American creative taste that so many of Dutilleux’s works were commissioned for premieres by American orchestras—the BSO first and foremost. The BSO list runs from Symphony No. 2, “Le Double,” for orchestra with integral chamber ensemble from1959 through (the jointly commissioned) The Shadow of Time, which debuted here in 2007. (Mark Devoto)

The death of Henri Dutilleux in his 98th year silences the revelatory creative imagination of an infallible ear.

An artist of humility, whose integrity and quest for perfection caused him to compose at a glacial pace, repeatedly withdrawing works before their world premieres until the last detail met his exacting vision, Dutilleux evolved from his impressionistic inheritance to create a language of iridescent and uncanny radiance, assembling molecule by molecule a musical narrative as astonishing as it is inevitable.  His virtuoso deployment of the orchestra, from his two numbered symphonies (1951, 1959) through such pathbreaking works as Métaboles (1964) and the dazzling Timbres, Espace, Mouvement—a depiction of Vincent van Gogh’s The Starry Night (1978)—to Mystère de l’instant (1989), is equally in evidence in his cello concerto, Tout un monde lointain (1970), for Mstislav Rostropovich, his violin concerto, L’arbre des songes (1985), for Isaac Stern, his adaptation of Sur un même accord (derived from the second of his three preludes for piano), for Anne-Sophie Mutter, and in his works for voice(s) and orchestra:  The Shadows of Time (1997), Correspondances (2003), and Le temps l’horloge (2007-2009), the latter for Renée Fleming.  No less breathtaking was the acuity of his sonic palette in other domains—the works for piano solo and two pianos, stretching from Au gré des ondes (which, like all of his music before the magisterial piano sonata of 1948, Dutilleux later disowned) to the hallucinatory three preludes (1973-1988); the atmospheric string quartet Ainsi la nuit, the dyptique Les citations, scored for the unlikely combination of oboe, harpsichord, contrabass, and percussion (1985/1991/2010), to the Trois strophes sur le nom de Sacher for solo cello (1976-1982).  The brevity of the list of his published works is due to his relentless self-criticism and his ceaseless curiosity that led him to attend the most diverse concerts and cultural events when a more self-centered creator might have elected to remain in his studio.

I met Henri Dutilleux in the summer of 1979 at the Conservatoire américain in Fontainebleau.  Nadia Boulanger was a founding member of the Conservatoire’s faculty, in 1921.  In the ensuing nearly 60 years, she taught an extraordinary roster of musicians from around the world, exerting an influence unmatched in the history of music.  During the summers of 1960-64 and during the winter of 1962-63 I was privileged to work with her; as was the case for so many of her pupils, I owe her the skills and perception without which my life in music would be inconceivable.  Early in 1979 she asked me to take over her teaching at Fontainebleau, realizing that her health was failing.  When I expressed doubt that I had the authority to teach composition, having abandoned it in favor of other goals, she assured me that I was equal to the task and informed me that Henri Dutilleux had consented to come down to Fontainebleau three times during the eight-week session to oversee the composers.

Robert Levin at the left, Dutilleux to his right facing him Narcis Bonet (Catalan composer, former pupil of Nadia Boulanger, director of the Conservatoire américain in the early 80s).  Behind him is Anthony Brandt;between Dutilleux and Bonet.  The photograph was taken in the Palace of Fontainebleau during the summer months when the C. a. is in session.
Robert Levin at the left, Dutilleux , front-left; facing him Narcis Bonet (Catalan composer, former pupil of Nadia Boulanger, director of the Conservatoire américain in the early 80s). Behind him is Anthony Brandt. The photograph was taken between 1980 and 1983 in the Palace of Fontainebleau during the summer months when the C. a. is in session.

During his first visit an empathy between us was immediately apparent; it was to lead to a deep friendship, animated by my wonderment at his genius.  Over the years I stayed in the guest room at his residence on the Ile Saint-Louis numerous times, savoring many wonderful meals with him and his wife, the extraordinary pianist Geneviève Joy, half Irish, half French, whose spirited personality was the ideal balance with the more reticent Dutilleux.  Knowing that Geneviève was Henri’s muse—the piano sonata and the Figures de résonances for two pianos were written for her (in the second case, together with her duo partner of forty-five years, Jacqueline Robin)—I was at first reluctant to take upon myself a repertoire for which Geneviève possessed a unique predicate.  Nonetheless, over the years I started to dream of making a recording of Dutilleux’s complete piano music—a project that came to fruition with the issuing of the disc by ECM in 2010.  By the time it was issued, Geneviève had passed away, and I dedicated the recording to her memory and to my friendship with Henri.  Worried about his growing frailty, I implored ECM to send him the finished edit as quickly as possible, worried that by the time the recording were issued he might not be in a position to hear it.  Within a week of its being sent to Paris, I received an email from his secretary informing me that Henri wished to speak with me.  I trembled with anxiety, knowing that his perfect ear would pick up on the slightest defect.  In the event, he declared over the telephone that the recording was “impeccable; it could not have been better”, and there followed a laudatio in a hand-written letter that does me far greater honor than I deserve.  He then asked me to have ECM send him twenty copies of the disc and send him the bill.  I rang ECM and asked them to send me the bill.  “We’ll send you half the bill” was the reply.

I shall dearly miss Henri, with whom I had so many stimulating discussions during those precious visits to Paris.  I know, however, that his music will forever astonish, shatter, and elate generations who will hear in his legacy the voice of one of the greatest visionaries in the history of music.

Robert Levin is well known to readers of these pages.

(For further reading Richard Buell suggests the Guardian obituary here.)


6 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. Robert Levin is well known to readers if these pages.

    You’re publishing on the Internet, no? People arrive here via a variety of search engines. Why not identify him as you do all other contributors?

    Comment by Jack — May 27, 2013 at 7:00 am

  2. Yehudi Wyner, who was one of my professors at Brandeis, used to tell us about time he had spent in Paris with Dutilleux. His favorite story was about the time he went to see Dutilleux wearing a purple beret. He was politely informed that any colors but black are for women… “alors, bonne chance!”

    Comment by Thomas Dawkins — May 27, 2013 at 9:53 pm

  3. Interesting picture added.

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — May 29, 2013 at 12:08 pm

  4. Robert Levin’s iterations of Dutilleux music, among them, Preludes, Piano Sonata, and the terrifying to the lush, Figures de résonnances with Ya-Fei Chuang, are all marvels full of refinement and deep explorations of emotion and piano sound.

    I met Dutilleux in 1963 at École Normale de Musique de Paris, a wondrous experience I cherish to this day.

    Comment by David Patterson — June 1, 2013 at 11:33 am

  5. Unlike those among us who had the privilege of knowing this great man well, I only had a chance to talk with him once, for about half an hour, in the checkin line at Logan Airport….but I was struck by his simplicity, modesty, and candor. May Dutilleux’ extraordinary music continue to enrich many thousands of lives.

    Comment by Joel Cohen — June 3, 2013 at 1:38 pm

  6. Thank you for the article on the passing of Dutilleux, as well as these wonderful comments about him–and that great photo of the young Bob Levin! I too would like to add my voice of praise to Maestro Dutilleux. I played the fabulous harpsichord part of his second symphony (“Le Double”) with the BSO and other orchestras several times, and as your readers might know, the Boston Symphony Chamber Players and I have frequently performed his wonderful piece for oboe, double bass, percussion and harpsichord, “Les Citations,” and recently recorded it. We all considered this work to be a masterpiece. I deeply regret the passing of Dutilleux, a musician of great integrity and genius, and a wonderful human being.

    Comment by Mark Kroll — June 4, 2013 at 8:03 am

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