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Henri Dutilleux: Painstaking composer whose work was rooted in unfashionable tonality

Tales of his kindness are legion; and his modesty belied his music’s immense stature

Henri Dutilleux was one of the most widely esteemed of French composers, someone who stood aside from the stylistic rivalries that bedevilled 20th century music and walked his own meticulously crafted path. His perfectionism meant that his output was relatively modest – 40 or so works – but the musicians who play his music are as fiercely aware of its quality as they are loyal to its composer. With reason: Dutilleux was one of the loveliest of men, his personal modesty in inverse proportion to the stature of his music.

Dutilleux began in the tradition of Debussy, Ravel and Roussel but almost all his early scores were rejected when he discovered Bartok and Stravinsky – and then moved away from them, too, slowly developing a style that was entirely personal. He took what he wanted from modernism but didn’t reject tradition: his music retained elements of tonality, even medieval modality, and at either end of the 1950s, when many composers were arguing that the symphony was dead, Dutilleux wrote two, the First (1950–51) opening with a passacaglia, one of the most traditional of musical structures, and the Second (1959), which has a chamber ensemble paired with a normal orchestra, mirroring the format of the Baroque concerto grosso.

Dutilleux’s family was artistic: his maternal grandfather was the organist and composer Julian Koszul; in 2005 Dutilleux organised and introduced an anthology of Koszul’s letters by way of homage. One great-grandfather was the landscape-painter and engraver Constant Dutilleux, a friend of Corot and Delacroix, and a Corot landscape, a family heirloom, hung above Dutilleux’s fireplace in his home on the Île Saint-Louis in Paris.

Although Dutilleux was born in Angers, his family returned to their ancestral roots in Douai in 1919 and Henri took his first instruction with the director of its Conservatoire, Victor Gallois. His official subjects were counterpoint, harmony and piano, but Gallois also nudged his student into playing percussion in the local orchestra – which may help explain his later refined writing for percussion.

At 17 he enrolled at the Paris Conservatoire. The Prix de Rome, a prestigious award for a cantata setting, has been won by many of France’s finest composers in their student years, Berlioz, Bizet and Debussy among them; Dutilleux won it in 1938, at his third try, with his cantata L’anneau du roi carried the day. It should have brought a four-year scholarship; instead, he had four months to enjoy the sabbatical in Rome that was part of the prize: with war on the horizon he returned to Paris, enlisting as a stretcher-bearer in September 1939.

With the fall of France Dutilleux found himself a civilian once again, spending some months as chef de chant at the Opéra de Paris and also working as pianist and arranger of light music. In 1945 he joined French radio in charge of new music, remaining in the post for 18 years until he resigned to spend his time composing – although he was also professor of composition at the École Normale de Musique from 1961 until 1970 and from 1970 to 1984 at the Conservatoire.

Dutilleux regarded the Piano Sonata of 1946–48 as his real Op. 1 – and it had emotional as well as musical significance: the premiere was given by Geneviève Joy, whom he married in 1946 and to whom he remained devoted until she died from cancer in 2009. She was his most intelligent critic, the rock on which he built his life.

Dutilleux’s craftsmanship and attention to detail (his manuscripts are things of beauty) did not result in a focus on small-scale pieces: he preferred larger canvases, using small motivic cells to generate the architecture of each piece. Métaboles, the next major orchestral piece after the Second Symphony, was commissioned by the Cleveland Orchestra, who gave the premiere in 1965; Dutilleux described it as a concerto for orchestra. Two of his most important scores are concertos proper, Tout un monde lointain (1970) for the cellist Mstislav Rostropovich and L’arbre des songes (1985) for the violinist Isaac Stern, each reconciling the virtuosity of its soloist with the structural considerations that give the works their power.

Between them came one of his most luminously lovely works: Timbres, Espace, Mouvement (1978), inspired by van Gogh’s painting La nuit étoilée – like van Gogh, Dutilleux was a man with no time for formal religious belief but who recognised a spiritual element in what he did. His music was rarely political, either, but the third movement of his orchestral The Shadows of Time, premiered in Boston in 1997, was an exception, dedicated “to Anne Frank and all innocent children of the world” and featuring three boys’ voices singing in unison “Why us?”

He enjoyed writing for specific musicians and took pleasure in working with them on the scores: the concertante violin work Sur le même accord (2002) was composed with Anne-Sophie Mutter in mind, and the song cycles Correspondances (2003) and Le temps l’horloge (2009) intended for Dawn Upshaw and Renée Fleming.

He frequently visited London, most recently in 2008 when, after a concert by the Nash Ensemble he was presented with the Gold Medal of the Royal Philharmonic Society. On an earlier trip, he granted me an interview but found talking about himself unrewarding – “Mais je parle trop!” And though I had a commission from an editor who hoped he would dish the dirt on Pierre Boulez and his quasi-stranglehold on French musical life, Dutilleux wouldn’t hear of it, insisting on Boulez’s courtesy and consideration.

Musicians have countless stories to illustrate Dutilleux’s own kindness. It went hand-in-hand with the self-criticism that kept returning him to revise his works often years later. Whether you were a star, an orchestral musician, a student or a member of the public was irrelevant: Dutilleux’s courteous charm made you feel the most important person in the room. The civility of his own demeanour could make him seem slightly formal, but he had a lively sense of humour. And he was no ascetic: he loved good food and wine, and was a generous host and a thoughtful correspondent, always acknowledging anyone who wrote to him.

In his last days he was grateful to be played recordings of Sarah Vaughan and Charles Trenet, to which he listened as intently as to a contemporary classic. He resisted praise of his own music – though last Friday he surprised the cellist Anssi Karttunen with the admission that he felt some of his music was “pas si mal”.

Henri Dutilleux, composer: born Angers 22 January 1916; married 1946 Geneviève Joy (died 2009); died Paris 21 May 2013