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)

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
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
    and  

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

    Save the Tiger: Meet the hunters tasked with protecting Russia's rare Amur tiger

    Hunters protect Russia's rare Amur tiger

    In an unusual move, wildlife charities have enlisted those who kill animals to help save them. Oliver Poole travels to Siberia to investigate
    Transfers: How has your club fared in summer sales?

    How has your club fared in summer sales?

    Who have bagged the bargain buys and who have landed the giant turkeys
    Warwick Davis: The British actor on Ricky Gervais, how the Harry Potter set became his office, and why he'd like to play a spy

    'I'm a realist; I know how hard this business is'

    Warwick Davis on Ricky Gervais, Harry Potter and his perfect role
    The best swim shorts for men: Bag yourself the perfect pair and make a splash this summer

    The best swim shorts for men

    Bag yourself the perfect pair and make a splash this summer
    Has Ukip’s Glastonbury branch really been possessed by the devil?

    Has Ukip’s Glastonbury branch really been possessed by the devil?

    Meet the couple blamed for bringing Lucifer into local politics
    Dress the Gaza situation up all you like, but the truth hurts

    Robert Fisk on Gaza conflict

    Dress the situation up all you like, but the truth hurts
    Save the tiger: Tiger, tiger burning less brightly as numbers plummet

    Tiger, tiger burning less brightly

    When William Blake wrote his famous poem there were probably more than 100,000 tigers in the wild. These days they probably number around 3,200
    5 News's Andy Bell retraces his grandfather's steps on the First World War battlefields

    In grandfather's footsteps

    5 News's political editor Andy Bell only knows his grandfather from the compelling diary he kept during WWI. But when he returned to the killing fields where Edwin Vaughan suffered so much, his ancestor came to life
    Lifestyle guru Martha Stewart reveals she has flying robot ... to take photos of her farm

    Martha Stewart has flying robot

    The lifestyle guru used the drone to get a bird's eye view her 153-acre farm in Bedford, New York
    Former Labour minister Meg Hillier has demanded 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists

    Do women cyclists need 'pootling lanes'?

    Simon Usborne (who's more of a hurtler) explains why winning the space race is key to happy riding
    A tale of two presidents: George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story

    A tale of two presidents

    George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story
    Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover

    The dining car makes a comeback

    Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover
    Gallery rage: How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?

    Gallery rage

    How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?
    Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players

    Eye on the prize

    Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players
    Women's rugby: Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup

    Women's rugby

    Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup