About this Recording
8.573596 - DUTILLEUX, H.: Symphony No. 2, "Le double" / Timbres, espace, movement / Mystère de l'instant (Lille National Orchestra, Darrell Ang)
English  French 

Henri Dutilleux (1916–2013)
Symphony No. 2 ‘Le Double’ • Timbres, espace, mouvement (ou, La nuit étoilée) • Mystère de l’instant


Henri Dutilleux was born in Angers in northern France on 22nd January 1916. At the age of 11 he enrolled at the Douai Conservatory to study piano, harmony and counterpoint. In 1933 he entered the Paris Conservatory where he studied composition with Henri Büsser and won a series of musical prizes, including the Prix de Rome in 1938. At the outbreak of the Second World War he enlisted as a stretcher bearer and served in this capacity until the fall of Paris in August 1940. After demobilisation he took on a number of jobs—as a pianist, teacher, arranger of light music and singing coach at the Paris Opera. In 1943 he joined the staff of French Radio where he became responsible for commissioning new music. He resigned in 1963 in order to devote more time to composition. He died in Paris on 22nd May 2013.

Dutilleux’s uncompromising perfectionism resulted in a modest but finely honed output. He disowned most of his early works and many of his mature scores were later subject to revision. The piano playing of his wife Geneviève Joy, whom he married in 1946, inspired the substantial Piano Sonata (1948). This, his first acknowledged work, marked a turning point in his creative development. In 1951 the broadcast of his First Symphony (1950–51) established his reputation internationally and in the ensuing decades he produced a number of highly imaginative orchestral works, including the concerto for orchestra Métaboles (1964), the cello concerto Tout un monde lointain (1970), the violin concerto L’arbre des songes (1979–85 and a meditation on war The Shadows of Time (1997). Chief among his small canon of chamber music is the string quartet Ainsi la nuit (1976).

By studiously avoiding prevailing musical trends and remaining fiercely independent he forged a distinctive and individual musical language of rare poetry and invention. His refined and scrupulously crafted compositions show an awareness of various musical styles, including music from the pre-Baroque era and also jazz in his use of pizzicato bass and syncopation.

Symphony No. 2 ‘Le Double’ (1955–59) was commissioned by the Koussevitzky Foundation for the 75th anniversary of the Boston Symphony Orchestra who premiered it on 11th December 1959 under the baton of Charles Munch. It is scored for a 12-strong chamber ensemble featuring representatives from each instrumental family (oboe, clarinet, bassoon, trumpet, trombone, harpsichord, celeste, timpani and string quartet) in addition to a full orchestra. This formation allows for subtle interplay between the two musical protagonists as they join forces, confront each other and offer reflected images of each other in a series of shifting inter-relationships. It is this dual personality, together with a use of stereophonic effects and polyrhythms which gives the symphony its subtitle ‘Le Double’. As the composer put it, ‘it’s a musical play of mirrors and of contrasting colours’.

The symphony’s main motifs are introduced in the opening pages. An ascending clarinet figure recurs in various guises throughout all three movements. It is echoed several times in the first pages of the symphony, often by the clarinets of the large orchestra, creating a sense of communicating across wide open spaces. Two other principal motifs consist of a sinuous, long-breathed phrase introduced by violins and flute and a contrasting punchy nine-note sequence, punctuated by rests, first heard on the harpsichord. The jazzy brass writing, especially in the lively finale, was partly inspired by Count Basie and Duke Ellington.

Dutilleux wrote in a programme note for the Second Symphony:

‘The thematic elements reach their definitive form gradually: this definitive form is the culmination of a series of distortions. Thus, at the start of each movement, there is a sort of commentary on the motives used in the preceding movement, and the new principal idea emerges from this metamorphosis. This is so until the end of the piece, where some of the different ideas in the symphony are brought together.’

After the first performance, a friend of Charles Munch drew Dutilleux’s attention to the symphony’s affinity with Gauguin’s painting D’où venons-nous? Que sommesnous? Où allons-nous? (‘Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?’). The composer accepted this connection as each movement ends inquiringly and after the first performances of the symphony he changed the final chord of the last movement, making it sound less conclusive and accentuating a feeling of probing into the unknown.

Timbres, espace, mouvement (ou, La nuit étoilée) (1976–78) was commissioned by the National Symphony Orchestra of Washington, who premièred it on 10th January 1978, conducted by Rostropovich. The title refers to van Gogh’s painting La nuit étoilée (‘Starry Night’) in which a cypress tree and a church spire rise up into the spiralling stars of the night sky. This piece is not a musical description of the painting, which Dutilleux described as ‘an enormously powerful and disturbing masterpiece’, but a record of the composer’s response to it. Wishing to capture the painting’s contrasts in colours, sense of space and upward movement, he confessed he was aiming for ‘a certain spiritual mood, like a sort of longing for the infinity of Nature’. A disorientating sensation for the listener is heightened by the unorthodox orchestration. The score omits violins and violas, but reinforces the woodwinds (five flutes, four instruments of the oboe family including an oboe d’amore, four clarinets, three bassoons and a contrabassoon) and includes a battery of ‘metallic’ percussion, judiciously deployed. There is no fading away at the end but rather an explosion of sound. In 1991 Dutilleux revised the work, inserting a short bridging passage, scored for 12 cellos, between the two original movements to which he added the titles ‘Nébuleuse’ and ‘Constellations’.

Mystère de l’instant (1989), for 24 strings, cimbalom and percussion was commissioned by Paul Sacher for the Basel Chamber Orchestra and premièred on 22nd October 1989 at the Tonhalle in Zürich. With this work Dutilleux wanted to renew himself as a creative artist. It was conceived as a series of snapshots and consists of ten sharply contrasting sections of varying proportions which are played without a break. Unusually for this composer, these movements are separate entities, completely unrelated to each other. Each has a very precise title relating to the process of composition or to basic compositional materials. Dutilleux’s intention in this piece was to capture a succession of fleeting sensations or, as the overall title suggests, to evoke the uniqueness and mystery of a given moment in time, especially one which encapsulates a rare, almost magical experience. This idea of ‘seizing the moment’ is a notable departure for a composer for whom the ‘progressive growth’ of thematic material into its ultimate form over the course of a piece is a hallmark of his mature style.

Entitled Appels (‘Calls’), the first movement was inspired by a medley of birdsong which Dutilleux heard late one summer evening near his home. Vertiginous and sparingly harmonised, its melodic fragments gradually descend and thicken. Several other sections explore a single gesture or effect, for example, Échos exploits the colouristic potential of slowly shifting clusters; Prismes explores the interaction between richly sustained chords and delicate trails of rhythmic pizzicatos; Espaces lointains focuses on extreme contrasts in register, and Rumeurs is built on a succession of layered glissandos. Other movements offer a more characteristically organic approach to their material: in common with a similarly titled movement in his string quartet Ainsi la nuit, Litanies contains echoes of Gregorian chant in its slowly unfolding unison theme, and a moment of introspection is provided by Soliloques with its series of eloquent, overlapping solo cadenzas. Given the self-imposed limitation of the instrumental forces employed in Mystère de l’instant, Dutilleux achieves a miraculous diversity of mood, textures, registers and techniques. Its sonorous harmonies, rhythmic drive and cumulative power are all indicative of a consummate composer at the height of his powers.

Paul Conway

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