The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: French composer Henri Dutilleux is dead at 97. He was an accessible modernist who embodied many traditional values of French culture. And here are some of the best remembrances and obituaries.

May 25, 2013
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By Jacob Stockinger

The French composer Henri Dutilleux (seen below in 2005 in a photo by Jean Pierre Muller for Getty Images) died Wednesday in Paris. He was 97.

Henri Dutilleux i 2005 Jean-Pierre Muller Getty Images

Henri Dutilleux was clearly a modernist, but not a militant or revolutionary modernist, who was known for his use of color and harmony. Like much of traditional French culture in general, he had a deep appreciation for formal beauty -– for melody, for structure, for clarity.

Here is his 1976 string quartet “Ainsi la nuit” (Thus the Night) in a YouTube video:

But even though he found critical acclaim, he never found widespread favor or popularity with the general public in the U.S. and around the world.

That is too bad.

The Ear very much likes Dutilleux’s work – his symphonies, his chamber music and his solo piano music (such as the Piano Sonata performed in a YouTube video at the bottom by his wife Genevieve Joy, who died at 90 in 2009). In fact I much prefer it to the much more famous and more frequently performed music by the 20th century French composer Olivier Messiaen, who was too Catholic, too mystical and religious, too self-consciously spiritual and aggressively dissonant and percussive for my taste.

Even as I am writing this, Wisconsin Public Radio is airing Dutilleux’s early Symphony No. 1.

It strikes me that Dutilleux (below, seen earlier in his career in 1959, in a photo by Ed Fitzgerald), who chided himself for not being prolific, worked in the great tradition of French refinement and craft, composing in the shadow of Maurice Ravel (who studied with Gabriel Faure, a family friend of Dutilleux’s father), that famous “watchmaker” musician.

Henri Dutilleux in 1959 CR Ed Fitzgerald

So here are some of the best remembrances and obituaries to appear so far, though curiously I have not found a great piece from the French press (if you find one, please leave a link or reference).

Here is a great overview from NPR’s wonderful classical music blog “Deceptive Cadence”:

http://www.npr.org/blogs/deceptivecadence/2013/05/22/186052590/henri-dutilleux-leading-french-composer-dies-at-97

As always, The New York Times provides a terrifically detailed and comprehensive overview of the composer’s life and career:

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/23/arts/music/henri-dutilleux-modernist-composer-dies-at-97.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

And here is along and detailed piece from the British newspaper The Guardian:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/music/2013/may/22/henri-dutilleux

And a shorter obit from the Los Angeles Times:

http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/arts/culture/la-et-cm-henri-dutilleux-20130523,0,6606521.story

And here is an obit from the New York City radio station WQXR FM that features conductor and composer Esa-Pekka Salonen (below) discussing Dutilleux’s music along with an audio sample of his orchestral music:

http://www.wqxr.org/#!/blogs/wqxr-blog/2013/may/22/henri-dutilleux-french-composer-dies-age-97/

Esa Pekka Salonen

If you don’t know Henri Dutilleux’s music, I particularly recommend an all-Dutilleux record of solo piano music (the cover is below) by the Harvard University professor, pianist and musicologist Robert Levin, who often appears at the Token Creek Chamber Music Festival, on the ECM Records label.

Henri Dutilleux CD Robert Levin ECM 2010

What are your favorite works by Henri Dutilleux, and what remembrances of anecdotes do you have to tell and leave in the COMMENTS section?

The Ear wants to hear.


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