updated 23 May 2013
© © Centre Acanthes

Henri Dutilleux

French composer born 22 January 1916 in Angers; died 22 May 2013 in Paris.

A French composer born in 1916 in Angers, Henri Dutilleux enrolled in the Conservatoire de Paris in 1933, studying counterpoint and fugue with Noël Gallon, orchestra conducting with Philippe Gaubert, composition with Henri Busser, and music history with Maurice Emmanuel. He graduated with highest honors in harmony, counterpoint, and fugue, and received the Grand Prix de Rome in 1938 with his cantata L’anneau du Roi.

During this period he studied Vincent d’Indy’s treatise on music and discovered Stravinsky, Bartók, and serialism, but always remained at the margins of these different aesthetic worlds. In 1942 he was appointed as choir conductor of the Paris Opera, and in 1945 became head of musical illustrations for Radio France, a position he held until 1963. This highly enriching experience allowed him to rub shoulders with all artistic movements.

Dutilleux was internationally renowned both as a composer and as a teacher. His teaching work was extensive: he became a composition professor at the École Normale Supérieure in 1961, then at the Conservatoire supérieur de Paris from 1970 to 1984. He was also invited abroad as a guest professor and lecturer on numerous occasions; twice, in 1995 and in 1998, he held a residency at the Tanglewood Music Center.

Henri Dutilleux became an associate member of the Belgian Royal Academy in 1973, an honorary member of the Royal Academy of London in 1966, was named to the UNESCO International Music Council, the American Academy and the Institute of Arts and Letters of New York in 1981, was appointed to the Accademia Nazionale Santa Cecilia in Rome in 1993, and became a member of the Bayerische Akademie der Schönen Künste in Munich in 1998.

Dutilleux’s first compositions premiered during the Second World War: Quatre mélodies for voice and piano in 1943, Geôle for voice and orchestra in 1944. Roger Désormière and the Orchestre National premiered Dutilleux’s first symphony in 1951 and the Compagnie Roland Petit premiered his first ballet, Le Loup, in 1953. In Boston, Charles Münch premiered his Second Symphony in 1959 and his Métaboles in 1965; the latter is one of his most frequently performed works. His string quartet Ainsi la nuit (1977) was also exceptionally successful. He wrote pieces for his wife, the pianist Geneviève Joy, as well as for many other renowned performers; for example, his concerto for cello and orchestra, Tout un monde lointain (1970), was a commission from Mislav Rostropovitch. In 2002, he composed Sur un même accord for violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter, and in 2003 composed Correspondances for soprano Dawn Upshaw.

Over the course of his lifetime, Henri Dutilleux received many awards and honors. In 1967 he was awarded the Grand Prix National de Musique for his entire oeuvre; and in 1983 the Grand Prix International du Disque by the Montreux Music Festival. In 1987, he received first prize in the Maurice Ravel International Composition Competition as well as the International Music Council Prize. In 1994, he was awarded the Praemium Imperiale of Japan for his entire oeuvre. For his composition The Shadows of Time he was awarded the Royal Philharmonic Society Award in 1998 and the Prix de Cannes in 1999. That same year he won the Grand Prize of the Presse Musicale Internationale. In 2005, he was awarded the Ernst von Siemens Music Prize.

© Ircam-Centre Pompidou, 2007


  • Encyclopédie Grove ;
  • Éditions Schott ;
  • CDMC (Centre de documentation de la musique contemporaine).

By Jacques Amblard

Dutilleux shares with Pascal Dusapin the honor of the most widely-performed French composer, at home and abroad. Dusapin’s success is largely due to the prevalence of vocal music in his output. For Dutilleux, much older, it is another story—that of a well-known symphonist. This romantic term was chosen deliberately: as with Mahler and Bruckner, his catalogue seems to be interwoven with large orchestral works, rather few in number, around which several smaller chamber works (or in rare cases vocal works) gravitate like satellites—such as the famous (but already “old”) Sonate (1947), still often played by pianists today. Each symphony, a work with its own atonal world, takes a long time to compose but rises each time to the challenge fitting—and no doubt also responsible for shaping—the reputation of its author: to be immediately heard as “classic” as well as atonal, to avoid any sort of tabula rasa (almost as much, if possible, as a piece by Poulenc) while always standing up for the avant-garde (as much as a piece by Boulez). The premiere of each of his “grand challenges for orchestra” has garnered widespread attention in the musical world. Though Dutilleux wrote only two proper “Symphonies” (in 1951 and 1959), he could has also given the title to several later works, where the subtitle accorded to each movement makes it nearly an independent piece in the eyes of posterity: the well-known Métaboles (1965), divided into nearly equally famous movements titled Incantatoire, Linéaire, Obsessionnel, Torpide, and Flamboyant ; the cello concerto (1965-1970) subtitled Tout un monde lointain, in five continuous movements titled Enigme, Regard, Les houles, Miroirs, and Hymne ; then Timbres, espace, mouvement (1977-1978) and the violin concerto subtitled L’arbre des songes (1980-1985), Mystère de l’instant (1986-1989), with ten movements (and as many titles), and Shadows of time (1995-1997), which contains Les heures, Ariel maléfique, Mémoire d’ombres, Vagues de lumière, and Dominante Bleue?

If it seems that Dutilleux is one of the few French composers who “breaks with no tradition,” this is chiefly because he, even more so than Messiaen, is the upholder of the impressionist aesthetic, and more specifically Debussy’s heir. And yet, Debussy distinguished himself at the outset not so much by breaking from tonality (as did the Viennese, Varèse, and even sometimes Stravinsky and Bartok) as submerging it (in a heavily enriched harmony) or fragmenting it (notably by replacing themes with short motifs in Jeux). Dutilleux seems to pick up the thread of this continual metamorphosis of tonality. “Themes,” beginning in Métaboles, seem to indeed exist, but have been in reality reduced to motifs in perpetual development whose clear identities are never firmly fixed (especially in Mystère de l’instant, as the title explains). Tonality is simplified bit by bit to its simplest possible form at the heart of a world which has “little by little” and “of itself” become atonal: a sort of polarity. One can clearly feel C# as the pole of Shadows of time or E in Métaboles, though the pieces sound atonal as a whole. If Britten can be considered an atonal (or polytonal) composer who sometimes sounds tonal, Dutilleux is the opposite: a tonal (or ‘polar’) composer who sometimes sounds atonal—though perhaps this is largely the result of divergent rules of cultural politeness in the two countries. Dutilleux seems to act as a historical intermediary between the harmonic enrichment of Debussy and Ravel and the systemized harmony of the spectralists in the 1970s (notably Grisey and Murail) applied to the orchestra, in the tradition of a French style of ‘large resonant orchestration’ from which the Viennese and even Stravinsky quickly distanced themselves. As in Debussy, or later in spectral music, the target sonorities are often intense, transparent, and mysterious. His titles and subtitles of pieces or movements often invoke the themes of night (including several ‘nocturnes’), mystery, dreams, and distance. This search for the unfathomable infinite favors musical expressions of continuity, embodied in the pitch domain by frequent glissandi, and equally apparent in his treatment of time: beginning with Métaboles, time is slow and smooth rather than strictly demarcated. Even Les heures seems fairly ‘arhythmic’ (slow, continuous) for a movement in which a temple block, as a sort of distant second hand, is meant to symbolize the regular flow of time. Here ‘arhythmic’ should be understood as rarely accentuated, as in Incantatoire (generally speaking), and the entirety of Tout un monde lointain and Timbre, espace, mouvement. Irregular rhythmic figures, played without rests (beginning in Métaboles), and superimposed rhythmic layers (due to the “separation into groups,” a concept we’ll return to later) contribute to a complex sense of time which ultimately comes across as supple and smooth. The instrumental playing techniques often aim for a delicate subtlety, impressionistic and even sometimes traditional: an abundance of string harmonics, percussion (especially drums and metallic instruments) either for distant resonance (aside from the blaring coupling of xylophone and brass in the Seconde Symphonie, Métaboles, and Tout un mode lointain), or used once more to create a mysterious sonority, as with the combination of marimba and impressionist harp in Torpide and Miroirs. Loud, thickly orchestrated passages are rare. This post-impressionistic orchestration is closer to Debussy than to Ravel; aside from the mixtures of color in Timbre, espace, mouvement (explained by the title), Dutilleux regularly divides the orchestra into subgroups (strings, brass, winds, percussion and accessories). Similarly, rather than associating timbres like Ravel, he prefers to introduce them raw like Debussy, allowing us to taste, for example, the romantic velvety voice of a clarinet (especially in Torpide and the Second Symphonie), the old-fashioned sound of an oboe d’amore, the isolation of a solo violin, contrabass, or most often a cello, allowing string divisi in a typically impressionistic fashion.

Dutilleux nevertheless incorporates into his “French sonorities” a good number of musical parameters borrowed from other twentieth century trends. Furthermore, in creating his rich and complex sonorities, Dutilleux makes use of all the “vertical logic” systems of twentieth-century music, sometimes within the same piece or even the same chord: aggregates derived from a verticalization of counterpoint or modes, stacks of intervals (especially fourths), enriched impressionistic chords (similar to harmonic spectra), or even polytonality, which seems to be (see the four chords at the climax of Linéaire) the only major lesson Dutilleux retains from Stravinsky (unless it came to him through Milhaud), more so than the Russian’s famous rhythmic ostinato, which Dutilleux seems to ignore. This aesthetic of widespread stylistic synthesis is inherited from Bartok, and deals with much more than vertical logic. Dutilleux, like his Hungarian colleague, has a a strong affinity for fourths (perfect and otherwise, including augmented), as evident just before the climax in Regard. He also continues the thread, like Hindemith, of Bartok’s German-inspired atonal counterpoint, notably in Linéaire or the end of the second movement of the Seconde Symphonie. In manipulating this sort of counterpoint, Dutilleux pushes the boundaries even further than Bartok, making use of all types of symmetry, retrograde (as in the opening of his quartet Ainsi la nuit (1974-76) or in mirror symmetry—which even finds its way into his titles: Miroirs in Tout un monde lointain, Miroirs d’espace in Ainsi la nuit, or even Double, the subtitle of the Seconde Symphonie. These mirror games also frequently appear in the composer’s choice of complex post-impressionistic chords (those referred to above as “enriched”) spaced in mirror symmetry in the low and high registers (as Ravel does) and with the same note doubled at the extremities. The strength and originality of this “integration of all modernist twentieth-century trends” is that these are not simply juxtaposed from one work to the next, nor from one moment to the next within a single piece, but sometimes all simultaneously dissolved at every minute in the grand symphonic solution. His work, though thoroughly French, often seems to recall Bartok; Stravinsky—and to a lesser but certain degree, the Viennese: as much as in Schoenberg‘s Farben, Dutilleux constructs melodies derived from timbre (perhaps here a French inheritance from Berlioz) but also, here and there, makes use of twelve-tone series, especially in Obsessionnel, whose engagement with serial technique as well as its aesthetic bitterness are justified by the extreme emotion (though it remains humane here) mentioned in the title.

The complexity of this permanent synthesis ultimately generates a stable style, charged with a refusal of any sort of systemization, judged too easy. This attitude is also linked, as a secondary phenomenon, to the composer’s willful ignorance of new technology ands its potential for simplification. Has anyone ever heard of an attempted electroacoustic piece, or even a mixed work? Indifferent towards another contemporary trend, Dutilleux seems to have never been inspired by non-European music (Indian, Indonesian, African, or otherwise) as almost all early twentieth-century composers had been (starting with Debussy). Dutilleux is closer in spirit to the autarchic position of the Second Viennese School, though he comes across as less of a scientist than other post-World War II atonal composers. It is this attitude—as well as his disinterest in accentuation and rhythmic clarity—which separates him from Messiaen (who dabbled in Indian modes and Indonesian rhythms, and was sometimes tempted by certain mathematical rigors, or at least admired it from afar). Dutilleux is more of a “literary” composer. His fascination for modes of limited transposition almost as strong as (their classifier) Messiaen’s, especially the second mode which first surfaces in the Sonate for piano, but Dutilleux also invents false modes of limited transposition that resemble Messiaen’s, motivated by his own brand of expressive realism—even more original and less constraining than Bartok’s obsession with the golden section. Dutilleux, a rare example amongst twentieth century composers, seems sufficiently confident in the “intrinsic musical order of a piece” to not feel the need for an external structure model. Give the lack of any rigid system (“musical” or otherwise), listeners must often get their bearings by ear in Dutilleux’s music, which can lead to an ambiguity between two, sometimes adjacent pitch centers: Miroir wavers between C and B, Regard between G# and A. The composer is ever elusive. Is this his dream of the faraway and mysterious? He remains in hiding. His inclination towards the nocturnal? He clouds his textures with “trills of intensity,” with his writing forces a sort of “trompe l’oreille,” inverting the violin and cello registers (in mirror symmetry), in the Nocturne (and thus into an undoubtedly false obscurity) in Ainsi la Nuit. This richness, this sonic density is in turn blurred by simple, sudden, and surprising moments of verticality: unisons. These interruptions generate certain brusque and transparent endings, such as the final A# in Timbres, Espace, Mouvement, or the final E of _Métaboles_—which comes across as all the more simple in contrast to the preceding chords of stacked fourths in the brass and the enriched harmony (different, nearly impressionistic or polytonal) in the winds and strings.

To his sole credit, Dutilleux managed to arrive at many of the same positions as avant-garde atonal composers, or even (at the opposite extreme) of certain post-modern aesthetics—even when the followers of these various trends were forced to renounce such and such a musical parameter: harmony, counterpoint (in sound-mass music beginning with Varèse and passed on through Xenakis), rhythm for the spectralists, orchestration for certain postmodernists, and many others. Dutilleux writes as many trills as Xenakis, creates clusters around a central note as often as Ligeti, is as ‘polar’ as the “second Berio“ (beginning in the 1980s). But his singular strength is his ability to continue to compose such precise music, an incremental style of music, which can be understood in terms of counterpoint and/or harmony, a music that generates, between each step, gestures as innovative as those of more ‘all-embracing’ types of music. This is a prime example the sort of inextricable stylistic synthesis demanded of twentieth-century performers (inextricable in the sense of the several branches and paths of composers attempting to escape Wagner). But the risk of such a synthesis is a potentially overcharged density. If Messiaen, who could be considered to have achieved a similar level of synthesis, compensates for complexity with clearly defined articulations (as mentioned earlier), with widespread homorhythmic passages—and from this point of view Messiaen remains less impressionist, less “French” than he would have let on—Dutilleux, for his part, is constantly tempted by the infinite depth of the orchestra, an outlook ultimately even more romantic than impressionism, where the clarity of orchestration renders any potential confusion acceptable, even irrefutable. As mentioned before, the orchestra is often subdivided by type of instrument—a simple but powerful technique of large-scale organization. If Dutilleux ultimately towers above the “swarming, untamable branches of twentieth-century music, it is because of his mastery of the orchestra. He does not seek to expand the arsenal of contemporary extended playing techniques, as many others have. His techniques for the most part are standard for the first half of the twentieth century, are those of Bartok: flatterzunge in the flutes at the most, or sul ponticello in the strings. The orchestra as a whole is “renewed” because it is powerfully organized and henceforth “taken very far” for a generally atonal style of music. Atonality, though it is a surface-level illusion—rendered acceptable to the public’s ears by a ‘polarity’ underneath—comes across in Dutilleux’s music as more reasonable, perhaps, because its boldness is tempered by ‘traditional values’: the tradition of impressionistic sonorities, of course, but also by underlying literary and artistic inspirations, rather anti-avant-garde or even populist (though always ‘refined’). Timbre, espace, mouvement was inspired not by Klein or Klee but by Van Gogh’s widely-known painting Nuit étoilée. As to his literary models, they are often more “classic” than “simply” French. For his dense and memory-laden conception of time, Dutilleux refers back to Proust. He is reminded of Baudelaire while composing Tout un monde lointain. In 1948 he composed incidental music for Molière’s Monsieur de Pourceaugnac, while three years earlier he worked on radiophonic pieces based on the Countess of Ségur’s Le Général Dourakine and Le roman de Renart. If his language can sometimes seem complex (through atonal counterpoint, for example) yet can still weave together long forms in this hurried era, it is thanks to the promise of an ever-popular “French delicacy,” as well as Descartes’ eternal light (as relayed by Bergson) waiting at the end of the piece.

Translation: Christopher Trapani.

© Ircam-Centre Pompidou, 2007


  • Nicolas DARBON (sous la dir. de), Entre le cristal et la nuée, Journées Henri Dutilleux organisées par le CDMC en décembre 2006, textes d’Aurélie Allain, Jean-Pierre Armengaud, Pascal Arnault, Francis Bayer, Jean-Yves Bosseur, Raphaël Brunner, Pierre Albert Castanet, Martine Cadieu, Bernard Cavanna, Nicolas Darbon, Marie Delcambre-Monpoël, Jacques Doucelin, Henri-Claude Fantapié, Éric Gaudibert, Gérard Grisey, Jacques Hétu, Didier Rotella, Sophie Stévance, Jeremy Thurlow, Centre de documentation de la musique contemporaine, 2010.
  • Marie DELCAMBRE-MONPOËL*, Ainsi la nuit de Henry Dutilleux*, Paris, Michel de Maule, coll. « Traces du silence », 2001.
  • Claude DESMARETS et Jean-Marie LHOTE (sous la dir. de), Ainsi Dutilleux …, coffret, 16 brochures, 1 Cd, Lille, Miroirs, 1991.
  • Henri DUTILLEUX, Mystère et mémoire des sons, entretiens avec Claude Glayman, Belfond, Paris, 1993.
  • Dominique JAMEUX, « Henri Dutilleux, poète de la rêverie : éloge prononcé à l’occasion de la remise du prix Ernst von Siemens 2005 », dans Dissonance n° 90, p. 34-35, juin 2005.
  • Maxime JOOS, La Perception du temps musical chez Henri Dutilleux, Paris -Montréal, l’Harmattan, 1999, collection « Univers musical », préface de Jean-Yves Bosseur.
  • Daniel HUMBERT, Henri Dutilleux, l’œuvre et le style musical, Champion-Slatkine, Paris - Genève, 1985.
  • Pierrette MARI, Henri Dutilleux, Zurfluh, Paris, 1988.
  • Caroline POTTER, Henri Dutilleux, his life and works, Brookfield, Ashgate, Aldershot, 1997.
  • Jean ROY, Henri Dutilleux, Musique de notre temps, Paris, Hachette, 1973.


  • Henri DUTILLEUX, « Correspondances », The Shadows of Time ; Tout un monde lointain, Barbara Hannigan : soprano, Orchestre philharmonique de Radio France, direction : Esa-Pekka Salonen, 1 cd Deutsche Grammophone, 2013, 0289 479 1180 7.
  • Henri DUTILLEUX, Le temps l’horloge, dans« Renée Fleming : Poèmes » avec des œuvres de Maurice Ravel et Olivier Messiaen, Renée Fleming : soprano, Orchestre national de France, direction : Seiji Ozawa, 1 cd DECCA, 2012, CD 0289 478 3500 4 DH.
  • Henri DUTILLEUX, « Orchestra, piano & Chaber Masterworks » : Métaboles ; The Shadows of Time ; Symphonie n° 2 « Le Double »Symphonie n° 1 ; Le Loup ; Tout un monde lointain…  ; Trois Strophes sur le nom de Sacher ; L’Arbre des songes ; œuvre complète pour piano seul ; Ainsi la Nuit ; Sonatine pour flûte et piano ; Sonate pour hautbois et piano ; Sarabande et cortège ; Choral, cadence et fugue, Michel Plasson, Jean-Claude Casadesus, Paul Bonneau, Myung-Whun Chung, Truls Mörk, Renaud Capuçon, Anne Queffélec, Emmanuel Pahud, Daniel Breszynski, Pascal Godart, Marc Trénel, Nicholas Daniel, Julius Drake, Quatuor Belcea, coffret 5 cds Virgin Classics, 2012.
  • Henri DUTILLEUX, « Robert Levin Henri Dutilleux D’ombre et de silence » : Petit air à dormir debout ; Sonate ; Au gré des ondes (I, III) ; Blackbird ; Tous les chemins … mènent à Rome ; Résonances ; Figures de résonances;Mini-prélude en éventail;Préludes: I.D’ombre et de silence, II.Sur un même accord, III.*Le jeu des contraires *;Bergerie;Au gré des ondes, Robert Levin : piano, Ya-Fei Chuang : piano (Figures de résonances), 1 cd ECM New Series, 2008, 2105.
  • Henri DUTILLEUX, Symphonies 1 & 2 ; The Shadow of Time ; Métaboles ; Tout un monde lointain ; La nuit étoilée ; L’arbre des songes ; La geôle ; Deux sonnets de Jean Cassou ; Mystère de l’Intant,  Ildiko Vèkony, J-G. Queyras, O. Charlier, F. Le Roux, Orchestre National Bordeaux Aquitaine, direction : Hans Graf, 3 cds Sony, coll. « Un siècle en France », 2009.
  • Henri DUTILLEUX, « Concertos - Orchestral works », L’arbre des songes ; The Shadows of Time, et al. Renaud Capuçon : violon, Mstislav Rostropovich : violoncelle, Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France, direction : Myung-Whun Chung, Michel Plasson, Serge Baudo, Georges Prêtre, 2 cds EMI, 2008, EMI 2068792.
  • Henri DUTILLEUX, Tout un monde lointain ; Trois strophe sur le nom de Paul Sacher, Marc Coppey : violoncelle, Orchestre philharmonique de Liège, direction : Pascal Rophé, avec une œuvre d’André Caplet, 1 cd aeon, 2008.
  • Henri DUTILLEUX, « Ainsi la nuit », quatuor à cordes, Quatuor Arditti. Cd, avec : Pascal Dusapin : quatuors N° 2 et N° 3, « Times zones », 1 cd Montaigne-Auvidis - Naïve, 2000, MO782016.
  • Henri DUTILLEUX, Symphonies 1 et 2 « Le Double », Orchestre de Paris, direction : Daniel Barenboïm, 1 cd Erato, 2292-45287-2.
  • Henri DUTILLEUX, Timbres, Espace, Mouvement ; Métaboles ; Symphonie N° 2, Orchestre de Paris, direction : S. Bychkov, 1 cd Philips, 438 008-2, 1992.
  • Henri DUTILLEUX, Intégrale des œuvres pour orchestre, Orchestre Philharmonique de la BBC, Yan-Pascal Tortellier, direction, coffret de 4 cds Chandos, 1997, CHAN 9853(4).
  • Henri DUTILLEUX, Sonate ; Figures de résonances ; 3 préludes ; 3 strophes sur le nom de S A C H E R ; « Ainsi la nuit » ; 2 sonnets de Jean Cassou ; Les citations, Geneviève Joy, Henri Dutilleux, pianos, David Geringas, violoncelle, quatuor Sine Nomine, Gilles Cachemaille, baryton, Maurice Bourgue, hautbois, Huguette Dreyfus, clavecin, Bernard Cazauran, contrebasse, Bernard Balet, percussion, 2 cds Erato - Radio France n° 4509-91721-2, Musifrance, 1994.


  • Chantal AKERMAN, Henri DUTILLEUX, Trois strophes sur le nom de Sacher, avec Sonia Wieder-Atherton, 1 cassette VHS, Mallia films, La Sept, Arcanal, Cnac, 1989, 12 min.
  • François-Marie RIBADEAU, Henri Dutilleux, le mystère de l’instant - 1ère partie - Voyage musical, 2ème partie - Naissance d’une œuvre, 2 cassettes VHS, 1990, 49’ et 53 min.
  • Jean-Luc DANIEL, Henri Dutilleux, un parcours libre, 1 cassette VHS, François Roussillon et associés, Secam, 1998, 57 min.

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