Henri Dutilleux (1916-2013)

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The great French composer has died at the age of 97

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Henri Dutilleux, a giant of contemporary classical music, has died at the age of 97.

Famously self-critical, Dutilleux wrote only a handful of major works including, most recently, Correspondances, an orchestral song cycle commissioned by Sir Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic. He wrote pieces for sopranos Renée Fleming and Dawn Upshaw, and the conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen recently said ‘Everything that Dutilleux has written in the last decades belongs to the category of masterpiece.’

Dutilleux was born in Angers in January 1916 and went on to study at the Douai Conservatoire with Victor Gallois before entering the Paris Conservatoire in 1933 to study under Jean and Noël Gallon. In 1938 he won the Prix de Rome for his work L’Anneau du Roi.

His residency in Rome was cut short, however, because of the outbreak of war. During the Second World War Dutilleux worked as a medical orderly before becomes an accompanist for singing classes at the Paris Conservatoire.

In 1945 Dutilleux joined Radio France where he was responsible for commissioning new music. It was around this time that he composed his Sonatina for Flute and Piano and the song Chanson de la deportee. But the composer later disowned these pieces and the rest of his work from this period.

In 1946 he wrote the piece which he later numbered as his Opus 1 – the Piano Sonata, written for his new wife, Geneviève Joy (who died in 2009). His First Symphony was broadcast in June 1951 in a performance conducted by Roger Désormière, and his reputation as a composer began to steadily grow.

From 1961, Dutilleux worked as Professor of Composition at the Ecole Normale de Musique in Paris and from 1970 he taught at the Paris Conservatoire.

Meanwhile, his Second Symphony had been commissioned and premiered by the Boston Symphony Orchestra and his work Métaboles, which Dutilleux called ‘a concerto for orchestra’ was premiered by the Cleveland Orchestra.

Among his other works, The Shadows of Time from 1997 commemorated victims of concentration camps.

Speaking to BBC Music Magazine about the work in 2006, Dutilleux said: ‘It’s what is called the duty of remembrance. It’s something of an obsession. It’s hard. I was born during the 1914 war and my father fought at Verdun. I spent my childhood in a devastated city.’

A new recording of Dutilleux’s Correspondances on the Deutsche Grammophon label was recently given five stars in BBC Music Magazine. The critic wrote ‘Now just past his 97th birthday, the composer is given to regretting that he hasn’t written more, but few if any other music lovers share this regret. Here is an oeuvre, not only of precise, masterly workmanship, but infused with emotional warmth and, beyond that, with profound passions.’

Click here to read our 2006 interview with Henri Dutilleux.