Henri Dutilleux is Still On a Quest for Perfect Expression
by Mark Satola
THE 88-YEAR-OLD FRENCH COMPOSER Henri Dutilleux will not be in attendance this weekend when Franz Welser-Möst conducts the Cleveland Orchestra in a program that includes Dutilleux's exquisite Symphony No. 2, “Le Double.” His absence is not due to any sort of retirement on the part of the octogenarian artist, but rather because he is “overbusy,” as his secretary put it, with, among other things, work on a piece commissioned by Seiji Ozawa and the Festival Saito Kinen of Matsumoto in Japan. Written for and dedicated to soprano Renée Fleming, it will be performed at the 2006 festival, in time for Dutilleux's 90th birthday.
The presence of Dutilleux's music in Severance Hall is always a welcome occurrence, one that has happened from time to time over the last 40 years, most prominently in 1965, when George Szell conducted the Cleveland Orchestra in the world premiere of Dutilleux's Métaboles, which was commissioned by the Musical Arts Association. It's not surprising that Szell, who frankly was not well-disposed toward contemporary music, was nevertheless a champion of Dutilleux, whose works are imbued with an all-too-rare combination of profound imagination and breathtaking technique; the legendarily conservative conductor knew the real thing when he saw it, his distaste for the Second Viennese School notwithstanding.
The Symphony No. 2 was written for the 75th anniversary of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and was first played there in 1959, with the BSO led by Charles Münch. Its sound-world must have appeared quite advanced to American audiences of the day, though Dutilleux indicated that there were those who considered its tonal liberality something of a heresy in the postwar years when twelve-tone, or serial, procedures ruled the musical earth.
“ ‘Le Double,' composed between 1955 and 1959, in a fully ‘serial' period, went against the current,” Dutilleux said in a recent e-mail interview (in French, translated by Francoise-Pierre Costes), “and was considered something of a provocation.
“But that was not my intention, for, if the language is still very often tonal or modal, you can also find, when analyzing it, borrowings from dodecaphonic techniques.”
Dutilleux's second symphony takes its name from its concerto grosso-like arrangement of forces, in which a 12-instrument ensemble occupies a place in front of the larger orchestra. Any similarity to baroque practice, however, disappears from the first sinuous notes of the clarinet, a questioning theme that functions almost as an unvarying motto throughout the first movement, and which returns at the symphony's quiet conclusion, an extended “unanswered question” that nevertheless perfectly resolves the complex turbulence that has preceded it.
Dutilleux acknowledges that the symphony was not his most characteristic expression of form. “If, after some time has elapsed, I were to criticize myself,” he said, “I should say that the [symphony's] sonorous substance, its instrumental language seem more interesting, more attractive than the form of the work, which still refers strictly to the three or four movements of the traditional symphony.”
The composer's quest for perfect expression through organic perfection has continued apace over the years. After the milestone of developmental organization achieved in Métaboles, Dutilleux went on to create a small but impressive catalogue of works, each marked by highly concentrated technique and unbridled imaginative flight. He indicated, however, that there was still much that he hoped to achieve.
“I did not cultivate the field of the human voice enough, in spite of my Correspondances, which I recently wrote for the Berlin Philharmonic and [American soprano] Dawn Upshaw,” he said. “In the same way, I hope I'll have enough time -- and enough strength! -- to write some new preludes for piano, and, if possible, a second string quartet.”
But there are limits, he suggested, to what can be accomplished. “I cannot have the ambition to imitate my great colleague Elliott Carter who, at his age [96 on December 11, 2004], dared to take on the adventure of the opera and won his bet!"
Originally published in the Cleveland Free Times, November 24, 2004.