Arts: Just a shadow of a doubt

At 83, Henri Dutilleux still looks to `what comes next'. It won't be opera, that's for sure.

Paris is at its loveliest in the soft light of autumn. The Seine, the riverside stalls and the outline of Notre Dame are familiar sights to composer Henri Dutilleux and his pianist wife Joy. The Dutilleuxs live in a spacious top-floor apartment not far from the cathedral. They have lived there together for more than 30 years but, when I visited, Henri was alone. Joy was recovering from a shoulder operation.

Henri Dutilleux is warm and welcoming. At once frail and boyish, he ushers me into the music room with its grand piano (the lid is open though the keys are covered) and framed manuscripts. "Come, see this," he says, as he reaches for an orchestrated page of Ravel's Une barque sur l'ocean. "Another manuscript features one of Stravinsky's "Three Japanese Lyrics", with its exquisitely fashioned Cyrillic script.

Of the two composers, Ravel is probably the stronger influence on Dutilleux's own work. His mind is as agile as ever. As a long-standing Head of Music for French Radio, he gained invaluable experience of countless composers - especially after the Liberation, when music that had previously been banned suddenly blossomed in abundance. "During the German Occupation, one could hear Honegger, a little Stravinsky and - on one occasion only - Bartk." The post-war deluge was astonishing. "Maybe there was too much variety," Dutilleux recalls, "and a danger that things would become too eclectic, that we would have too many influences."

The major influences on his own evolving style included composers from the pre-Baroque era (medieval music being a particular love) and his teacher Maurice Emannuel, who also taught Messiaen, encouraging him in the study of Greek and Hindu myths. Dutilleux talks enthusiastically about Britten and Tippett and raves about Paul Dukas, who he regrets never having met. I mentioned composer Jean Jules Roger-Ducasse (Faure's favourite pupil), quoting a rather beautiful but little-known "Sarabande" which I happened to hear recently, and he hummed its thematic material from memory. "He looked like Faure," recalled Dutilleux. "Someone once said that he could even be Faure's son. C'est possible."

Dutilleux is fast approaching his 84th birthday and, while creatively active, he is acutely aware of time's passing. I had been listening to three separate recordings of his Second Symphony, and wondered whether he has any preferred interpreters. "You know, I do not need to hear my music too often," he said with characteristic modesty. "I want to try to write new pieces. The problem now is that I am not so young any more, but I can tell you that I do sometimes imagine these different interpretations. I have a good memory!" He cites Charles Munch (who conducted the work's Boston premiere) as special and Yan Pascal Tortelier as exceptional. He confesses that, after the Symphony's first performance, he revised part of the second movement.

And what of The Shadows of Time (1995-97), which the London Philharmonic will perform tonight at the Royal Festival Hall? Are revisions involved there, too? "No, I have not changed very much there," he shrugs, then adds a footnote about some extended material towards the very end of the work.

Composers are famously reluctant to favour one or other of their own creations. "We cannot have an exact notion of how we inter-relate with our earlier works," he admits, "mainly because we're nearly always thinking of what's coming next. For me, though, being the age I am - and with the space of time available to me - I can tell you what I prefer. It's probably my cello concerto Tout un monde lointain, which `Slava' Rostropovich commissioned."

The Concerto draws its inspiration, in part, from the sensual poetic ideas of Charles Baudelaire, and yet actually setting texts is another challenge entirely, one that has long proved problematic for Dutilleux. His principal work-in-progress is conceived for female voice and orchestra and is scheduled to be premiered by the Berlin Philharmonic under Sir Simon Rattle early in 2001. It will be scored for a large orchestra "of a not exactly classical disposition" (Dutilleux's own cryptic reference) and will employ a variety of texts, including, in all probability, the Lithuanian-born poet Czeslaw Milosz and various French poets. What is that Dutilleux most looks for in a text? He shakes his head wearily. "That is the trouble, and it has always been the trouble with me. I have a strong programme, a very strong programme of creative plans at the moment, but opera is still impossible for me."

Although Rolf Liebermann, Luciano Berio and others have repeatedly tried to talk him into writing an opera, the genre remains obstinately closed to him. "I have difficulties with the concept of operatic declamation, with forging musical conversations on stage. Who can do that after Pelleas et Melisande?"

He waves the subject away. This perceived failure is a source of both regret and a certain bemusement. "It's not only a problem of age," says Dutilleux. "Look at Elliott Carter. He's now in his nineties and he's recently written an opera!" For Dutilleux, the idea of writing music for the theatre, as accompaniment to the spoken word, is far more appealing than writing opera. But the tendency to doubt is characteristic.

"Although I would not call myself a pessimist," he says. "I have this feeling of doubt. It is there in The Shadows of Time.

"Messiaen, on the other hand, was completely free of doubt. He was absolutely certain, and clear, in his faith. He once said to me, `I know you haven't the same feelings as I have, but I can tell you that God is in you'. That was his great strength, his force: to have no doubt."

Kurt Masur conducts the London Philharmonic in Henri Dutilleux's `The Shadows of Time' tonight at the Royal Festival Hall, London (0171-960 4242)

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Radio 4's Today programme host Evan Davis has been announced as the new face of Newsnight

Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams performing on the Main Stage at the Wireless Festival in Finsbury Park, north London

Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Mathison returns to the field in the fourth season of Showtime's Homeland

Arts and Entertainment
Crowds soak up the atmosphere at Latitude Festival

Arts and Entertainment
Meyne Wyatt and Caren Pistorus arrive for the AACTA Aawrds in Sydney, Australia

Arts and Entertainment
Rick Astley's original music video for 'Never Gonna Give You Up' has been removed from YouTube

Arts and Entertainment
Quentin Blake's 'Artists on the beach'

Artists unveils new exhibition inspired by Hastings beach

Arts and Entertainment
MusicFans were left disappointed after technical issues
Arts and Entertainment
'Girl with a Pearl Earring' by Johannes Vermeer, c. 1665
artWhat is it about the period that so enthrals novelists?
Arts and Entertainment
Into the woods: The Merry Wives of Windsor at Petersfield
theatreOpen-air productions are the cue for better box-office receipts, new audiences, more interesting artistic challenges – and a picnic
Arts and Entertainment
James singer Tim Booth
latitude 2014
Arts and Entertainment
Lee says: 'I never, ever set out to offend, but it can be an accidental by-product'
Arts and Entertainment
tvThe judges were wowed by the actress' individual cooking style
Arts and Entertainment
Nicholas says that he still feels lucky to be able to do what he loves, but that there is much about being in a band he hates
musicThere is much about being in a band that he hates, but his debut album is suffused with regret
Arts and Entertainment
The singer, who herself is openly bisexual, praised the 19-year-old sportsman before launching into a tirade about the upcoming Winter Olympics

Arts and Entertainment
Arts and Entertainment
Jon Cryer and Ashton Kutcher in the eleventh season of Two and a Half Men

Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear

Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

    Screwing your way to the top?

    Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
    Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

    Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

    Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

    The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
    Climate change threatens to make the antarctic fur seal extinct

    Take a good look while you can

    How climate change could wipe out this seal
    Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier for the terminally ill?

    Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier?

    Some couples are allowed emergency hospital weddings, others are denied the right. Kate Hilpern reports on the growing case for a compassionate cutting of the red tape
    Man Booker Prize 2014 longlist: Crowdfunded novel nominated for first time

    Crowdfunded novel nominated for Booker Prize

    Paul Kingsnorth's 'The Wake' is in contention for the prestigious award
    Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster to ensure his meals aren't poisoned

    Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster

    John Walsh salutes those brave souls who have, throughout history, put their knives on the line
    Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

    Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

    A $25m thriller starring Sam Worthington to be made in God's Own Country
    The 10 best pedicure products

    Feet treat: 10 best pedicure products

    Bags packed and all prepped for holidays, but feet in a state? Get them flip-flop-ready with our pick of the items for a DIY treatment
    Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy': A land of the outright bizarre

    Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy'

    A land of the outright bizarre
    What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

    What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

    ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic's latest video is an ode to good grammar. But what do The Independent’s experts think he’s missed out?
    Can Secret Cinema sell 80,000 'Back to the Future' tickets?

    The worst kept secret in cinema

    A cult movie event aims to immerse audiences of 80,000 in ‘Back to the Future’. But has it lost its magic?
    Facebook: The new hatched, matched and dispatched

    The new hatched, matched and dispatched

    Family events used to be marked in the personal columns. But now Facebook has usurped the ‘Births, Deaths and Marriages’ announcements
    Why do we have blood types?

    Are you my type?

    All of us have one but probably never wondered why. Yet even now, a century after blood types were discovered, it’s a matter of debate what they’re for
    Honesty box hotels: You decide how much you pay

    Honesty box hotels

    Five hotels in Paris now allow guests to pay only what they think their stay was worth. It seems fraught with financial risk, but the honesty policy has its benefit