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Death of a great French composer

The death was announced today of Henri Dutilleux, composer of exquisite orchestral and instrumental works in an unmistakably French idiom. He was 97.

Born in Angers, he occupied important positions in Parisian musical life – head of music at French radio and professor of composition – but was unable to combat the overwhelming influence of Pierre Boulez and the ultra-modernists.


photo: Lebrecht Music & Arts

Signature works, such as  Métaboles (1965) and the cello concerto Tout un monde lointain, (1970), were taken up by world orchestras and enjoyed wide acclaim for their formal perfection, as well finished as a haute couture garment.

One came away from a Dutilleux performance overwhelmed more by its ambience than by any singular, memorable idea. He was a great composer in the manner of the great impressionists. What remains is the impression.

UPDATE1: Personal memoir here.

UPDATE2: here’s an interview with the Maitre (en francais)

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  1. As Music Director of the Orchestre National des Pays de la Loire, based in Angers and Nantes, please allow me to share my sorrow at the passing of Anger’s native son, Henri Dutilleux. He was a giant among composers and a true gentleman. All of France will mourn the loss of this leading 20th century composer, and all of Angers and the Pays de la Loire will forever celebrate the legacy he leaves both in music and as a fellow “concitoyen.”

    I speak on behalf of all our musicians and staff and elected officials who are proud of our collective heritage. As we construct a new concert hall in the name of this great Angevin, and as we continue to perform his music, we will remember that while his cello concerto evoked a “monde lontain,” a faraway world, Henri Dutilleux will forever be close to our hearts.

  2. Daniel Orenstein says:

    Great personality. One dark spot remains, however, his attitude during the war when he held an official position at the opera house in German occupied Paris

    • DebashishSharma says:

      In the third movement of Dutilleux’s ‘The Shadows of Time’ entitled ‘Mémoires des ombres’ there is a musical tribute ‘pour Anne Frank, et pour tous les enfants du monde, innocents’.

      Dutilleux crafted sound worlds of intense beauty. Humanity will be poorer for his loss.

    • Michael Schaffer says:

      Yes, he was a choir master at the Paris opera during the German occupation 70 years ago.
      Terrible! Terrible!!
      Please let us know – when was the last time you lived in a country occupied by a totalitarian regime and you heroically stood up to the occupiers. Then we can all admire you as our spotless hero!

  3. The last of the giants has gone………………..

  4. Marcus Crompton says:

    I’m sad that he’s gone. Absolutely love his music – I’m sure it will continue to be performed and enjoyed for a very long time.

  5. Michael Antrobus - Oslo/Norway. says:

    Daniel Orenstein; was that snyd comment absolutely necessary?

    R.I.P. Henri Dutilleux.

  6. @Daniel: with a name like Orenstein, the behaviour of a composer during the Second World War where France was under occupation may appear relevant.

    I’m certain Dutilleux was thinking as a musician, and the question on most musician’s mind is “who is going to pay the next bill”.

    Viewed in this context, given the opportunity, Dutilleux would have been a fool not to take up the appointment. I do not think its necessarily says anything about his politics.

    Dutilleux wrote beautifully for woodwind, and whilst learning the Oboe, I have looked through the Oboe Sonata (which is lovely).

    France has lost a great Composer. Requiscat in Pacem Henri.

  7. There they go again. “With a name like Orenstein . . . .” Imagine a world without Jews! Europe has tried and will try again. How dare anyone ever raise any idea that any artist should ever have thought twice about collaboration. What was wring with the Nazis anyway? It’s all relative. And they loved music!

    • Surely it was WWII that claimed ca 70 million dead, two thirds of them non-combatants.
      To hell with the Nazis, what is wrong with US today that these millions are forgotten?

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