Obituary: Henri Dutilleux - composer

22nd May 2013
Henri Dutilleux (Milan Wagner/Schott) Henri Dutilleux (Milan Wagner/Schott)

The French composer Henri Dutilleux has died; he was 97. With the death of Elliott Carter late last year, Dutilleux represented a generation of musicians with roots almost back into the 19th century; certainly his music can be seen in a direct line from that of his great predecessors Debussy and Ravel.

Dutilleux studied at the Conservatory in Douai before moving to Paris where he worked with Jean and Noël Gallon, Henri Büsser and Maurice Emmanuel at the Conservatoire. In 1938 he won the Prix de Rome but was unable to enjoy the traditional stay in Rome due to the War, during which he worked as a medical orderly. During the latter years of the War he worked as pianist, arranger and teacher as well as conductor of the chorus at the Paris Opera. 

From 1945 until 1963, Dutilleux was head of music production with Radio France. He also held the role of professor of composition at the Ecole Normale de Musique de Paris and was a member of staff of the Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique. For three years (1995-8) he was composer-in-residence at Tanglewood.

Dutilleux married the French pianist Geneviève Joy in 1946 and wrote his official Op 1, a Piano Sonata, for her; it was premiered in 1948. Two symphonies followed in 1951 and 1959 and are among his most performed compositions. Métaboles of 1956 was premiered by George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra and established Dutilleux’s reputation in North America. In 1970, Mstislav Rostropovich premiered a cello concerto, Tout un monde lointain, that Dutilleux had written for him. 

Then for 20 years Dutilleux turned from orchestral music to concentrate on chamber-scale works including a string quartet, Ainsi la nuit (1976). He returned to orchestral composition with Timbres, espace, mouvement (1978) inspired by Vincent van Gogh. He later wrote a violin concerto, L’arbre des songes for Isaac Stern; it’s unusual in his output in being entirely atonal. 

His last work, a song-cycle – Le temps l’horloge – for Renée Fleming (recorded by Decca) was first performed, complete, in 2009, and is sumptuously scored with an almost Impressionist sound-palette. 

His musical voice was highly individual, and also very French with great emphasis on texture and colour, but early 20th-composers like Stravinsky and Bartók had a powerful impact on him. 

Click here to read the Gramophone of the new recording of Dutilleux's Correspondances, conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen (DG)


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