The familial musical roots of Henri Dutilleux (b. 1916) began at least as early as his grandfather Julien Koszul, erstwhile director of the Roubaix Conservatory, and a close friend of Gabriel Fauré. In youth Henri studied at the Douai Conservatory until enrolling in the Paris Conservatory in 1933. His cantata L’anneau de Roi earned him First Prize of the Prix de Rome in 1938, an award that he could not entirely fulfill due to the outbreak of war the following year. During that horrific conflict he served as stretcher bearer while continuing to expand his musical horizons, which included a stint as director of singing for the Paris Opera in 1942–43.
Following the war Dutilleux served as head of music production for French Radio until 1963. Two years before that post ended he became Professor of Composition at the École Normale de Musique de Paris, a position he held until 1970. He was Composer in Residence at Tanglewood in 1995 and again in 1998.
It was while the war still raged in Europe that Dutilleux composed his Sonatine for Flute and Piano (1942), designed as a test piece for aspiring flutists at the Paris Conservatory. At this early stage in his career, Dutilleux’s “voice” bore the lingering accents of Debussy and Ravel, reflecting both composers’ quests for textural clarity. The work is laid out in three brief movements, Allegretto, Andante and Animé. The piano starts things off with a quiet yet jaunty rising melody taken up and expanded by the flute before a subsidiary theme is presented. A cadenza for flute leads into a touching Andante whose darker mood is immediately established by slowly descending chords on the piano. Such thoughts are swept aside in the sprightly concluding Animé, driven by motoric rhythm and expressing bright optimism, a much needed commodity during the bleak year of the Sonatine’s composition. Near the end of the piece the composer provides another deft and demanding flute cadenza.
The Choral, Cadence et Fugato for Trombone and Piano (1950) opens with plangent piano chords soon joined by the bronzen sonorities of the trombone. Clear in texture, economical in gesture, the music employs a vocabulary of restrained dissonance with still-lingering Debussyian harmony. A succeeding section posits an anxious rising trombone line over ominous rumblings from the piano, which leads to an animated and emphatic dialogue between the two instruments.
Trois Préludes consists of three disparate pieces; given their widely spaced dates of composition it is clear they were not conceived as a cycle, yet they share in common the composer’s further exodus from tonality. The first number, D’ombre et de silence (“The Shadow of Silence”) (1973), hearkens back to Debussy’s late piano music where chord progressions have essentially lost their traditional “functional” purpose of moving music forward to expected resolutions. There is no Claire de lune romantic fragrance in these arresting note clusters! Sur un même accord (“On the Same Chord”) (1977) shows the same non-progressive harmonic character. Unfolding essentially over a single harmony, this brief work can be heard as a self-limiting study in keyboard resonance. The third piece, Le jeu des contraires (“The Game of Opposites”) (1988), is as long as the first two preludes combined, breathing the same air of rarified sonority and unrestricted harmonic imagination.
Dutilleux composed Les citations: Diptych for Oboe, Percussion, Harpsichord and Double Bass over a period of six years from 1985 to 1990. The opening movement, For Aldeburgh 85, opens with the oboe intoning a long, increasingly Eastern-sounding melody centering on a single note. The flowing tune is soon interrupted by eerily engaging sonorities from various and colorful instruments from the percussion section, themselves joined by knotty chords and runs from the harpsichord, often augmented by solo double bass. Throughout the kaleidoscopic sequence of wonderful percussive sounds the oboe continues to weave its serpentine melody. The ensuing From Janequin to Jehan Alain opens with an extended solo for harpsichord, quirky and inventive, before the boldly hued percussion section comes to vibrant life. It is then that the oboe joins in the festivities. Here, too, Dutilleux’s vivid imagination for tone color comes to the fore. Virtually twice as long as the first movement, the music shimmers and dances in brilliant sonic hues throughout, sounding blazingly modern while paying homage to historical French love of sound. With a bit of imaginative fancy one could imagine a modern-day Rameau writing such wondrous music.
Commissioned by the Serge Koussevitsky Foundation, Dutilleux’s String Quartet, Ainsi la nuit (1976) was dedicated to the memory of his friend Ernest Sussman, and to Olga Koussevitsky. The piece consists of seven movements, each one showcasing various special effects such as pizzicato, glissandi, sul ponticello (“on the bridge”) and harmonics, and enhanced by explorations of extreme registers and widely varying dynamic levels. Dutilleux gave titles to these seven apparently isolated studies in orchestral color, texture, tone and mood to impart, as he instructed, a “certain poetic or spiritual mood.” But between the first five movements are musical parentheses that remember or foreshadow musical ideas found among the movements, creating a fascinating and interconnected work that is often associated with the concept of memory. Though Ainsi la nuit is scrupulously structured, it is no mere cerebral exercise — the music itself contains a mysterious emotional edge.
The Sarabande et Cortège for Bassoon and Piano (1942) is one of a number of early works that Dutilleux jettisoned after moving into a distinctly less tonal and more dissonant style. The piano opens, its movement suggesting an almost Baroque “walking bass” over which the bassoon enters. Like the first piece on tonight’s program, the spirits of Debussy and Ravel hover over the proceedings. A distinctly jaunty middle section adds both assertiveness and dry humor, especially in an extended fugal dialogue between the participants. A daunting bassoon cadenza precedes the work’s emphatic conclusion. The piece has achieved a firm spot among 20th-century works for solo bassoon and makes frequent appearances at competitions throughout the world today.
Maurice Ravel (1875–1937) composed his Introduction et Allegro for Flute, Harp, Clarinet and String Quartet (1905) on commission from the Érard Company to demonstrate the expressive range of the firm’s double-action pedal harp. It has often been characterized as a miniature concerto, though there is nothing inherent in it to deny its warranted place in the pantheon of superbly wrought chamber music. In two movements, the sweet and nostalgic Introduction begins with parallel winds, then strings, soon enhanced by upward arpeggios from the harp. During the ensuing Allegro the harp expands on melodic material from the Introduction. The entire piece revels in rhapsodic and evocative song-like passagework suggestive of dream states and unfettered romance.
© Steven Lowe
Back to Performance Information