The most comprehensively accomplished and fulfilled French composer of the later 20th century, and vigorously active into the 21st, Henri Dutilleux combines a vivid and detailed instrumental imagination, an ear for harmony perhaps second only to Ravel’s, and a painstaking immersion in his craft.
He was born in 1916, but has disowned most of the music he wrote before 1947. His grandfather Julien Koszul had been director of the Roubaix Conservatoire, in Flanders; both his parents were amateur musicians. Taught by Henri Büsser at the Paris Conservatoire, he won the Prix de Rome at the third attempt, only to be forced back from Rome to France after four months as the war approached: he was mobilised until September 1940 as a stretcher-bearer.
A Resistance sympathiser, he was evacuated temporarily to Nice but took himself back to Paris, and in 1943 began working for French Radio. Here he remained until 1963, mostly as ‘Head of Musical Illustrations’, commissioning adventurous radiophonic fusions of music and drama that several times won the Prix Italia. A parallel career teaching composition at the École Normale and then the Conservatoire was curtailed by sight problems, though a successful cornea transplant resolved them.
Dutilleux appeared at first to fall into the succession of Ravel and Roussel. Following the Piano Sonata of 1947 he composed two symphonies in the 1950s, both of them still performed. But what he has called ‘my search for rare colours’ gradually became his most distinctive characteristic. Since around 1960 he has composed a small number of mostly substantial works, all of them refining and focusing a constant transformation of his materials and an ever-changing sound palette.
The music has a powerful sensuous and poetic impact, and often a high emotional charge. It retains a constant background awareness of tonality without falling back on tried and tested ways. He wrote for theatre and film earlier on in his career, but not opera, a circumstance which he regrets but puts down to hesitancy and slow working. Apart from the smaller pieces, major compositions include Métaboles for orchestra (1959–64); ‘Tout un monde lointain …’, a cello concerto for Mstislav Rostropovich (1970); Ainsi la nuit for string quartet (1973–6); Trois strophes sur le nom de Sacher for cello, again Rostropovich (1976–82); Timbres, espace, mouvement for orchestra (1976–8); L’arbre des songes, a violin concerto for Isaac Stern (1979–85); Mystère de l’instant for strings with cimbalom and percussion (1985–9); and finally last century, The Shadows of Time.
So far in the present century there are two widely performed works, Sur le même accord for violin and orchestra (Anne-Sophie Mutter, 2002), and Correspondances for soprano and orchestra, premiered by Dawn Upshaw in 2003. 2007 saw the premiere in Matsumoto of Le temps, l’horloge – another song cycle, written for Renée Fleming and setting the contrasted poetry of Charles Baudelaire and Dutilleux’s former French Radio colleague, the dramatist Jean Tardieu.
Profile by Robert Maycock © BBC