May 22, 2023 marks the ten year anniversary of the death of the major French composer Henri Dutilleux, who died at age 97 in 2013. Having had the chance to know him a little bit during his lifetime, I wanted to take this opportunity to bring him back to the forefront of our collective memory and to honor his contribution to music.
Born in Angers in France on January 22, 1916 during the Great War (World War I), he grew up in Douai, a famous city in French Flanders near Belgium, which was caught in the trench warfare of the first great conflict of the last century, which explains why he was born far away from his family home.
The region was historically known for the quality of its musical traditions going all the way back to the middle ages (Josquin des Près, Orlando Lassus, Guillaume Dufay), and many wonderfully talented musicians also came out of this part of France and nearby Belgium during the 19th and 20th centuries. As a result of this, the Music Conservatory of Douai was equipped to provide an unusually good music education for a provincial town, and many of its graduates went on to make significant careers in Paris and in the world. This is where Henri Dutilleux was first educated in music as a pianist and composer, before pursuing on to the famous Paris Conservatory in 1933.
After two unsuccessful attempts, Dutilleux was awarded the most prestigious young composer’s prize, the Prix de Rome of 1938, which came with a 4-year residency at the Villa Medici in Rome to study and compose in a peaceful place, free from all worldly concerns. This didn’t quite turn out the way it was supposed to, as just a few months after Dutilleux’s arrival in fascist Italy in 1939 (he even witnessed Mussolini give a speech), war broke out and he had to return precipitously to France. He enrolled into the Air Force as a radio technician, but very quickly, France capitulated and he returned to civilian life.
During the war years in Paris, he composed music for radio and some films, and he also lent his name to Jewish composers who were in hiding and could not earn money: in other words, he would put his name on their compositions so that he could earn money and pass it back on to them secretly. This practice was somewhat common for those who were not aligned with the Vichy government’s inhumane and unjust anti-Jewish laws. Indeed, Dutilleux belonged to the National Front of Musicians during the war years, which was an underground group of Resistant musicians who helped Jewish musicians and participated in other ways with the Resistance movement by countering Vichy government and Nazi propaganda.
After the war, Dutilleux married Geneviève Joy, a talented pianist who was very active in the Parisian new music scene. They never had children and dedicated their lives to music, each in their own way.
Dutilleux’s compositional body of work was constructed slowly over decades. As a whole, it does not represent a lot of music, as he would usually spend a long time crafting each work, being extremely focused on details and always wanting to make certain that he could stand by his creations. He occasionally regretted publishing some of his early works, as his style and voice began to truly reveal itself in the 1950s, in particular with his first great success, his Second Symphony entitled “Le Double” from 1959.
From then on, he increasingly became one of France’s most revered composers, and received prestigious commissions from around the world. His work was particularly championed by such great musicians as conductors Charles Münch, George Szell, Seiji Ozawa, cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, violinists Isaac Stern and Anne-Sophie Mutter, the Juilliard String Quartet, singers Dawn Upshaw and Renée Fleming, among others.
His music, though resolutely modern for its time, was never intended to revolutionize music. Unlike some composers and artists, he did not have a political approach to earning his place in music history. He was an artist’s artist, deeply committed to his craft, and little concerned with trends and career maneuvers. He had an esthetic sense that was profoundly inspired by the idea of beauty.
A passionate lover of the works of Charles Baudelaire, Vincent Van Gogh, and of course the music of Claude Debussy, who could be called his musical godfather, his inner search was concerned with the ineffable, with the in-between, with the mysteries of human existence and the inner perceptions of the world, of feelings, of nature. Dutilleux was a gentle and sensitive soul who was clearly saddened by the tragedy of the world.
He loved color, rhythm, timbre, and profundity. His works are never light, but rather deeply meaningful. Even if one does not understand his music, even if one doesn’t leave humming his tunes, one never leaves untouched by his sound world.
Ten years after his death, his music remains relevant, powerful, emotionally moving.
We are progressively gaining distance from the 20th century and its many revolutions in music and art. Just as we do with music from other centuries, time acts as a filter. Some music is left behind, some is continuously revived. Dutilleux’s music was made to stand the test of time. It pulls us in without assailing us. It is not easy music, yet it is not repulsive music as some of the same period was intended to be. It does not seek to shock our ears, but to make us better listeners instead. Clearly, it reveals something of the 20th century’s violence and disappointments, but often inspired by visionary 19th century artists (Baudelaire, Van Gogh, Debussy), used by Dutilleux as starting points, and a way to rise above the fray of contemporary culture.
The cello concerto he composed for Rostropovich, Tout un Monde Lointain (A Whole Distant World), which was premiered in 1970 in Aix-en-Provence with the Russian cellist and the Orchestre de Paris, is directly inspired by poems of Baudelaire’s collection, The Flowers of Evil (Les fleurs du Mal). One of his most famous compositions, it remains a beautiful testament to his musical vision, to his unique sound universe. In five distinct movements, the work evolves over the course of about 30 minutes, taking its time.
I strongly recommend this work as an entry into Dutilleux’s world, which truly is on a different plane of existence, somewhere distant indeed. In addition to the Rostropovich version, I also love the most recent recording interpreted by young French cellist Victor Julien-Lafferière with the Orchestre National de France.
Other works of his which have stayed with me are his String Quartet, Ainsi la nuit (Thus the Night), which is considered one of the most important string quartets of the 20th century. Again, here he explores time beyond time, remodeling the concept of time and space in music, which in some ways the Night represents. The public at the premiere in 1977 was so enthralled that it had the work entirely repeated by the musicians!
On a more personal note, I was lucky to know Henri Dutilleux from a very early age. Indeed, my own grandfather, Roger Lepauw, who was a well-known violist in post-war France with top positions in many ensembles including those of Principal Viola at the Paris Opera and later within the Orchestre de Paris, had also been a student at the Music Conservatory of Douai, and although he was slightly younger than Dutilleux, their paths began to cross right there in their shared hometown.
Later, they both found each other at the Paris Conservatoire, and became professional colleagues and friends over the years. My father Didier Lepauw, violinist, and my grandfather were both part of the Orchestre de Paris when Rostropovich premiered Dutilleux’s cello concerto. As a child, I regularly attended rehearsals and concerts of the Orchestre de Paris, where Dutilleux’s works were regularly programmed in his presence.
Later on, as an adult, whenever I attended concerts anywhere in Paris, Dutilleux was almost always in attendance, as he supported all his musician friends in their performances. In fact, he was always with the musicians after concerts in the restaurants and bars celebrating their successes, even if his music had not been part of the program!
On some of these occasions, I was able to speak with him a little. But it was later, on two distinct occasions, that I had a chance to have long and fascinating conversations with him. The first was in the Spring of 2007, after the cellist Mstislav Rostropovich had died, and I called Dutilleux to interview him about Rostropovich for the magazine I was publishing then, the Journal of a Musician.
The second time, in September 2007, was at his invitation in his home studio of the Ile Saint-Louis in Paris, to interview him about his life and work for the Journal of a Musician as well. He had just returned from Japan where his last large-scale composition had been premiered by Seiji Ozawa and Renée Fleming, Le Temps l’Horloge (Time and the Clock). It was such a beautiful, enlightening conversation for me!
Not only did he talk to me about his early years and inspirations, and how he fell in love with music in part by hearing the daily carillon bells of the Douai belfry, but also his passionate “discovery” of Debussy’s opera Pelléas and Mélisande as a 12 year old. Then later, during his conservatory years, he got excited about the polyphonists of the Renaissance like Palestrina and Josquin des Près, but also by the composers of the Second Viennese School like Schönberg, Webern and Berg, but also Bartòk, Prokofiev, Hindemith… He told me that there were so many exciting developments in music then that it was almost too much to behold!
He even admitted to being in awe of Beethoven’s late string quartets and piano sonatas for their extreme modernity, which was unusual for his forward-looking generation. Being so taken by music as a whole and the works of his forefathers and contemporaries (like Messiaen whom he also greatly admired) is perhaps why it took him a while to find his true voice as a composer.
We also talked about the process of composing, and how he found inspiration. He said that, while ideas came easily, crafting them into full compositions was a very difficult thing for him, that it took a lot for him to find the right path, to feel like he was making the right decisions, and that he was clearly expressing what he heard in his inner ear. He said that it sometimes took great exhaustion and stress for him to finally feel the necessary breakthrough, and that he had come to realize that it was through extensive work that inspiration would finally come to him. It was never easy, and he could be at his desk through the night seeking to resolve his creative conundrums.
But Dutilleux did not take the easy path, which he could have done. Early in his career, he was composing music quickly for film and radio, and was making a living doing so. He nevertheless decided to go down a much harder path of musical exploration as he went on with his life, and composing a new work had to make sense to him.
He said to me that no amount of money or prestige could force him to make music if he did not feel it deeply within. This was not posturing of any sort, as he would have preferred it to be easier! But he was true to himself, to his inner calling, and could do nothing else but remain perfectly honest in his approach as he grew as an artist.
Luckily for us, he lived a long enough life to allow him all the time he needed to create his timeless music!
To explore further, I recommend the following links:
- France Musique Radio Episode by François-Xavier Szymczak about Dutilleux, dated this day, May 22, 2023: https://www.radiofrance.fr/francemusique/podcasts/arabesques/henri-dutilleux-1900485
This is a radio episode from France Musique that goes over some of his most iconic works. If you understand French, you will be able to follow the introductions to each piece (including an anecdote by the presenter who shared some of my own experience with Dutilleux), but even without knowing French, you’ll get a good overview of Dutilleux’s music.
2. Dutilleux’s Second Symphony, Le Double (1959): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xgtTT--5tfk
3. Dutilleux’s Cello Concerto, Tout un Monde Lointain (1970): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O2qmECLxnCY
4. Dutilleux’s String Quartet, Ainsi la Nuit (1977): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GM8iPNe8qOU
5. Dutilleux’s Le Temps l’Horloge, with Renée Fleming (2007-09): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L6R_N_eifec
If you are interested in reading my interviews with Dutilleux, I may republish them soon (they were initially published in the Journal of a Musician in 2007).
I shared only some pieces mentioned in this article available on YouTube. But due to rights issues, the Rostropovich and even the just released Julien-Laferrière versions of the cello concerto are only available on paying streaming platforms. If you have a subscription to one of them, you can search for more versions of these works.
Let me know what you think about his music and personality!