Cherishing Every Note

Article excerpt

Some composers seem to spring from the womb fully formed. The earliest works of Shostakovich, Ravel, Messiaen, Britten and Boulez are not merely uncannily assured in technique and instrumental finish. They also bear the unmistakable imprint of those composers; the quirks, turns of phrase, harmonic palette, sense of timing, and all the other elusive factors that go to make up a personal style, are already in place and being exploited to the full.

Others do not have it so easy. Henri Dutilleux, the distinguished French composer who celebrates his 80th birthday this year, had one of the slowest compositional maturations imaginable. Born in Angers in 1916, he studied composition with Henri Busser at the Paris Conservatoire, but his early aspirations were interrupted by the war and the German occupation. At the end of the war, Dutilleux was just starting to find his own feet as a composer with the fine Piano Sonata (1947-8), when he had the rug pulled from under him by the sudden arrival on the musical scene of an aggressively iconoclastic group of younger composers led by Pierre Boulez. They heralded the epoch of total serialism, and their intolerance in the Fifties towards any musical aesthetic other than their own has since been characterised by many as a kind of musical terrorism.

Even if he would not go that far, Dutilleux was worried by serialism. On the one hand, he was far too musically alert to ignore the qualities of freshness and invention of Boulez's finer music, and as head of incidental music at French Radio he commissioned Boulez to write music for a radio play. On the other, he quickly realised that it would be absurd for him to chuck everything he had grown up with and leap on to the bandwagon, as many more superficial talents did. Dutilleux laboured away at his elegant, brilliantly orchestrated First Symphony until 1951, composed in an idiom closer to Roussel or Honegger than to any of the more fashionable youngsters, only to find Boulez turn his back on him at the work's otherwise successful premiere. "You can understand that, if you know what Boulez himself was writing at the time," Dutilleux has since explained, with astonishingly objective understanding. For whatever reason, Dutilleux's composing slowed up dramatically after this. His Second Symphony was not completed until 1959, after some six years' work. This is a more personal conception, "a milestone for me at the time", as the composer admits. Here we get the rich, resonant chords, clothed in the finest orchestral drapery, which have remained an immediately recognisable hallmark of his music ever since. But it was not until he completed another orchestral work entitled Metaboles in 1965 that Dutilleux's personal voice fully emerged. This is a brightly coloured sequence of five connected movements, each transforming slowly into the next. The harmonic style is more clearly contemporary, and there is a sporadic attempt at 12-note writing. Little of those concerns will be of any interest to the first-time listener, who is likely to be struck by the freshness of the sonorities, the spontaneous rhythmic energy, and the unerring aural accuracy with which each moment is conceived. Dutilleux was nearly 50 when Metaboles established him overnight as one of the most personal voices writing for the orchestra. He received plaudits from Messiaen and even Boulez began to show an interest. In all mature Dutilleux, the most important element in the music is the uninhibited enjoyment of colours and sonorities for their own sake: "The joy of sound," he says. It is music that entices the listener by its sheer delicacy and charm, and is not at all ashamed of doing so. In this sense it corresponds very closely to our received notions of "Frenchness" in music. Dutilleux admits that there is a side of him that is pleased to relish "the French taste for the beautiful chord". …