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)

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