Henri Dutilleux (1916 - 2013) is a composer I have only recently begun to listen to. I am just finishing listening to the seven CDs contained in a new box of his music titled The Centenary Edition as the centenary of his birth is next year.
Dutilleux was hardly a prolific composer: these seven discs contain nearly all the music he approved for publication. His output boils down to one piano sonata, two symphonies, a ballet, a very few other orchestral works, a cello concerto, a violin concerto, a few songs, a string quartet and a few other pieces of chamber music.
You might be tempted to dismiss his music as being "derivative" or not adventurous enough, which are the official reasons why he is not more well-known. But a derivative, unadventurous composer would surely have found it easy to crank out a lot of music instead of just these few pieces. He is quoted as saying:
I always doubt my work. I always have regrets. That's why I revise my work so much and, at the same time, I regret not being more prolific. But the reason I am not more prolific is because I doubt my work and spend a lot of time changing it. It's paradoxical, isn't it?A few days ago I played the beginning of his violin concerto for a couple of friends, one a violinist and the other a composer. They had never heard it before and were unable to identify it. Not even the continent! But they were pretty sure it was 20th century. The pice is titled L'Arbre des songes (Tree of Dreams) and was commissioned by Isaac Stern. Here it is:
Here is the interesting paradox of the music of Dutilleux: it is, if you are familiar with 20th century music, immediately captivating. It is aesthetically powerful, very well composed and full of character and color. But not well known! I suspect that a lot of the reasons have to do with ideology. Falling between Messiaen and Boulez in age, Dutilleux simply did not fit into the available niches. He was not an enfant terrible like Boulez, nor a trickster like Cage, nor did he have a dramatic narrative like Messiaen and certainly was not a technical innovator like Stockhausen. He just wrote good music. That particularly endears him to me!
This is very French music in its sense of melody, its colors and its harmonies. Also, very beautiful music!
I am going to put up a few posts on Dutilleux. In the meantime, you should listen to L'Arbe des songes a few times and perhaps some of his other music: the piano sonata, the two symphonies and the symphonic fragments of Le Loup his ballet. While very listenable the first time, the music undeniably grows in interest on repeated listening.