Henri Dutilleux – Between worlds

Diving into contemporary music, Henri Dutilleux is one of those figures that attract the most, not just for the quality of his music, but for his relentless aversion to compromise it. Dutilleux grew up with the avant-garde as the only accepted way to compose, and yet he refused to bow to it. His long life rejection for Boulez’s dogmas, especially the necessity of serialism, is common knowledge. That way of composing never coped with his sensibility as a musician. In his own words:

I don’t speak about him, and he doesn’t speak about me. I admire his work for the Ensemble Intercontemporain. He has made his choices and he has the right to make his choices. But there are things I cannot accept, and I don’t like people who are never in doubt.

Dutilleux’s approach was by far the most anti-ideological of his generation: where most composers would fall into the classical refusal of the past and the “tabula rasa” way, he refused to be contained into the strict rules of this school of composition, despite his decades of teaching at the Paris Conservatoire.
Henri Dutilleux

His music breathes of French tradition, from Debussy to Ravel to Stravinsky with the addition of some Bartok. He drew inspiration from all form of arts: Timbres, espaces, mouvements is based on Van Gogh‘s immortal Starry Night; the Shadows of Time is a gloomy meditation on loss, written for the 50th anniversary of the end of WWII and catalysed by the discovery of the deportation by the Nazis to concentration camps of an entire orphanage of Jewish children in Anne Frank’s diary.

The piece itself is dedicated to Anne Frank “and all the children, innocents of the world”.

Incidentally, this dedication reminds me of Shostakovich string quartet op.110, dedicated “to the victims of fascism and war”.


Anne Frank
The heart of the score is a movement called “Memory of shadows” that includes music for three children’s voices: Dutilleux recounts a stroke of inspiration when he was searching for a “special color in the instrumentation” to contrast with the brass and wind timbres dominating the beginning and heard “some voices coming from a nursery school close to my studio.” The effect is shocking.

A stickler for details and revisions (something in common with Boulez), Dutilleux only cared about his world, completely independent from the mainstream, extremely refined in his orchestration, true to his heart and art.

Happy 100th anniversary!


Alex Ross has something to say about him here while for a list of events head to the Dutilleaux 2016 website.


Here are a few links to some of my favorites compositions of his:

The shadows of time

Timbres, espaces, mouvements

Tout un monde lontain – this cello concerto was commissioned and premiered by Rostropovich

Sources and resources:

Henry Dutilleux: photo by Brianthebrain2 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Anne Frank photo credit: photo by Unknown photographer; Collectie Anne Frank Stichting Amsterdam (Website Anne Frank Stichting, Amsterdam) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Cover photo by Trinita’ | Flickr

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