Henri Dutilleux

The great French composer has died at the age of 97. In tribute, we reprint the interview that appeared in the February 2006 issue of BBC Music Magazine

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In 2006, Roger Nichols met the great French composer, Henri Dutilleux, who has died at the age of 97. Here, we reprint the interview in tribute to the man who has been called the 'composers' composer'. Our obituary of the composer can be found here.

Henri Dutilleux

The slightly stooping figure makes its way down the steps somewhat gingerly. The knee operation may have been a success, but at nearly 90 one doesn’t take risks. The only surprising thing is that the whirlwind of shouts and applause doesn’t lift Henri Dutilleux up to the dome of the Royal Albert Hall, posing unexpected angles for the Proms cameraman.

In later years Stravinsky was given to asking of any new work by another composer: ‘Who needs it?’ The Proms audience on 27 July were greeting the London premiere of Dutilleux’s Correspondances with a resounding: ‘We do!’ But not only that, I think. As I read it, the response was not merely one of musical enthusiasm, though that it certainly was; it was also a show of genuine affection and gratitude towards a man who has remained true to himself throughout his long life, and in doing so has graced us with some of the most moving and beautiful music of the 20th century – and, happily, beyond.

He has also remained extraordinarily young in spirit. He had travelled from Paris the day before, and the organisers not surprisingly thought he might opt for an early night before the premiere. But when the hotel closed the bar at 11pm, Dutilleux mused, ‘I wondered whether there might be a night club…’ In the event there wasn’t, but when I come to see him in his hotel room the morning after the premiere he appears to harbour no ill will. Indeed, he is particularly happy about how things have gone on every front: ‘I was touched by Mr Kenyon’s invitation,’ he says. ‘All the more so as everything in London is always so well organised and the musicians everywhere are on my side.’

Henri DutilleuxHe does go on to mention one or two other places where the organisation, and rehearsals especially, have not been up to scratch (I forebear to name names), and in any case ‘I don’t make a habit of travelling to every premiere’. Indeed not, or he would be in constant movement round the globe. I should also say that there is a gentle subtext to his remark, in that in another interview some years ago Dutilleux stated firmly that a composer’s job is not to become a media personality but to stay in his studio composing. Whether we take this to refer to Pierre Boulez or not is of course up to us.

He is generous in his praise for soprano Barbara Hannigan’s singing of the solo part, ‘and from memory’, and agrees that the CBSO’s playing of the work has settled still further since the British premiere in Birmingham earlier in the year. As he justly remarks, ‘Ma musique est difficile, mais jouable.’ And ‘chantable’ too. I wonder why he is now, at this late period in his career, concentrating on the medium of voice and orchestra. He points out that there have been earlier attempts, notably his settings of poems by the Résistance writer Jean Cassou, where he prefers the orchestral versions to the piano ones. But he has always been a lover of what he calls ‘les grandes voix féminines’. Now that he has renounced the idea of ever writing an opera (he says he still can’t find a satisfactory way of writing recitative that goes beyond Pelléas), the song cycle remains an obvious vehicle through which to express this desire.

Correspondances was written for Dawn Upshaw, who sang in the premiere with Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic in September 2003. The cycle he is now planning will be for Renée Fleming. Both will be organised around a ‘central idea’. In Correspondances, this idea is space and the cosmos, realised most memorably in the last of the five songs, ‘De Vincent à Théo…’, in which van Gogh tells his brother ‘I go outside at night to paint the stars’, leading to a quotation from Dutilleux’s earlier orchestral work Timbres, Espace, Mouvement, ou La nuit étoilée . By contrast, the cycle for Fleming will be based on the idea of time.

This too has been one of Dutilleux’s continuing interests, most notably through the notion of memory with all its Proustian associations, as we can hear in two of his own favourite works, the string quartet Ainsi la nuit and the Cello Concerto Tout un monde lointain. At the moment he is reading the poetry of the late Jean Tardieu; once the texts are decided, only then will he start composing.

He has never been happy with the label ‘independent’, suggesting as it does someone who tries to deny their past. At the same time he is irritated (the only moment of irritation in our discussion) when dictionary entries insist on how much his music has been influenced by Debussy, Ravel and Roussel. Of course, if you’re brought up in that domain, some of their music gets in one’s bones. But (and this was certainly a new idea for me) he feels late Fauré also deserves a mention. And even the Second Viennese School: ‘le sérialisme provoque des questions.’ Not that he ever wished to join some of his friends in protesting openly against serialism. In his view, the best answer to the ‘serial terror’, as he has called it, is to write good music.

Henri DutilleuxThen there are his Polish roots. These enter the discussion when I touch on the point that so many of the stories told in his songs are stories of human tragedy – the poems of Cassou, the Jewish children chanting ‘Pourquoi nous?’ in The Shadows of Time, the memories of Solzhenitsyn (albeit tempered with gratitude) in Correspondances. ‘It’s what is called the duty of remembrance [le devoir de mémoire]. 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.’ Then he pauses and says: ‘The Poles went through much worse times.’ This reference may be explained by the fact that his maternal grandfather, Julien Koszul, a musician and a friend of Fauré, was Polish, and Dutilleux reckons that this may be the source of the ‘fond de mélancolie’ he feels within himself.

He may be reluctant to set himself up as a media guru, but this certainly doesn’t mean he’s a total recluse. He continues to keep his finger on the pulse of Parisian music-making, so I ask whether he thinks contemporary French music is in good shape. ‘That’s difficult to answer, because it’s in the middle of a process of evolution.’ But if we agree that variety is a healthy sign, then, yes, the signs are promising. He mentions Betsy Jolas, and Edith Canat de Chizy who, although more or less unknown in Britain, is already a member of the Institut. I volunteer Jean-Louis Florentz, whose untimely death last year has been lamented in many quarters (though, again, his music does not figure in the UK record catalogues). Dutilleux recalls an early cantata, Requiem de la Vierge, even if at that time Florentz was still unduly under the Debussy/Ravel influence, and says, rather feelingly, that he was ‘a victim of serialism; he couldn’t accept it’. Then there are better-known names such as Eric Tanguy, Pascal Dusapin (‘a very free spirit’) and Philippe Manoury, who intrigues Dutilleux by his masterly integration of traditional and electronic means.

He has considerable interest too in the British composing scene. Apart from George Benjamin, Julian Anderson and Oliver Knussen, he was very impressed by two composers he taught at Tanglewood in 1995, Kenneth Hesketh and Andrew McBirnie and continues to follow their output.

Finally, I return to a point he’d made in an earlier conversation, that when he was a student at the Conservatoire there was no course in analysis, and that to a large extent he learnt analytical techniques on his own by studying scores of music that interested him. As a pendant to his admission that he had taken the occasional look at d’Indy’s composition treatise, he now tells me the story of the 19-year-old Marcel Mihalovici being asked by Ravel, ‘Who are you studying with?’ Mihalovici replied, ‘Vincent d’Indy’. ‘What a shame!’ says Ravel, ‘you’re a goner (vous êtes perdu)! He bases all his teaching on the Beethoven sonatas.’

In any case, Dutilleux is not convinced that analytical dexterity has much to do with composing. For every work the form has to be rethought. The crucial element, and this very much goes for his own works, is ‘l’idée centrale’. No more convincing evidence could be provided for this than his Violin Concerto, whose title, L’arbre des songes, combines the mysterious, meditative aspect of the dream with the logical structure of the tree, growing entirely from a single seed. Similarly, for a piece of music you find a central idea, then ‘you construct a system from it’. If I had to give one piece of advice to listeners to his music, it would be to concentrate particularly on the fragments heard in its quiet openings, since this is where the seed is often planted (in the Violin Concerto, in the soloist’s rising fourths).

One of his remarks might be cause for surprise: that his catalogue of works is ‘pas important’. Until you realise he is talking quantity, not quality. But who decides how many works a composer should write? Dutilleux’s oeuvre talks quality – witness the requests for works from performers the world over, enough to last him another 90 years at least. Book now for the Prom performance of his time-based cycle, which will arrive, God-willing, in the composer’s own good time. The wait will be worth it. 

Photos: Duncan Kendall; Jean-François Leclercq/DG

A obituary of Henri Dutilleux will appear in the July issue of BBC Music Magazine, on sale 12 June