By Thomas May
Violinist Augustin Hadelich’s Grammy win highlights the work of French composer Henri Dutilleux on the 100th anniversary of his birth
Augustin Hadelich just missed being in Los Angeles to receive his first-ever Grammy Award. He had even traveled to LA for a chamber concert the day before the ceremony, but was already en route to his next engagement—with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra in Poole on England’s coast—when congratulations for winning the Grammy Award for Best Classical Instrumental Solo started pouring in via social media.
Trading Southern California sunshine for the English rain is part of the price that comes with being an internationally sought-after violinist. When I visited with Hadelich on a March afternoon, he joked that he was still waiting for the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences to mail out his gold-plated trophy.
“One great thing about this Grammy is that, I hope, more people will get to know and love this piece,” says the 32-year-old violinist. He’s referring to L’arbre des songes (The Tree of Dreams), the title of the violin concerto by Henri Dutilleux (1916–2013) with which he so impressed the Grammy voters.
Dutilleux never gave up wanting to write beautiful music. That actually got him into trouble with Boulez and Stockhausen and the orthodox postwar avant-garde.
This year marks the centenary of Dutilleux’s birth—a milestone the French composer came close to experiencing firsthand: He died in Paris at the age of 97, in May 2013. Hadelich is one of a new generation of artists who are advocating the pleasures of Dutilleux. He recorded L’arbre des songes with the Seattle Symphony Orchestra (SSO) and music director Ludovic Morlot, who included it on the second volume of the ensemble’s ongoing complete survey of Dutilleux’s orchestral works (all released by the orchestra’s in-house recording label, Seattle Symphony Media). The album garnered two other Grammy nominations as well: Best Orchestral Performance and Best Engineered Album (Classical)—for the work of producer Dmitriy Lipay.
“Before this project, I myself had never played Dutilleux but had only heard his music,” Hadelich explains. “And yet every single time I encountered a piece of his, I thought it was beautiful and fascinating. You don’t find that often with a composer, that his or her whole output is so excellent.”
This conviction was enough to intrigue Hadelich when the opportunity arose to participate in the SSO’s complete Dutilleux orchestral cycle. Morlot, a native of Lyon, came on board as the orchestra’s music director in 2012, and since then has championed the music of his compatriot to widespread acclaim. “There are certain bastions in the music world for Dutilleux, and Seattle has become one of them thanks to Ludo,” observes Hadelich.
In fact I met with the violinist during his latest visit back to Seattle—where for years he has been a local favorite as a regular at the Seattle Chamber Music Festival’s monthlong summer series. Along with a weekend of concerts featuring Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto, Hadelich was in town for another recording session, this time devoted to Sur le même accord, a smaller work for solo violin and orchestra that Dutilleux composed for Anne-Sophie Mutter nearly two decades after writing L’arbre des songes for Isaac Stern.
Both pieces are encountered a good deal less frequently than Tout un monde lointain… (A Whole Distant World), the cello concerto Dutilleux wrote for Mstislav Rostropovich. Completed in 1970, that concerto has achieved recognition as one of the enduring contributions to the cello literature and arguably ranks as his best-known instrumental composition.
But Dutilleux’s legacy has not been a victim of what might be called “the 20th-century music problem”—the bias, especially prevalent in the decades after World War II, against contemporary composers of concert music, who were perceived to be too invested in complex theories at the expense of the very things that make the art appealing in the first place. Quite the opposite: “He never gave up wanting to write beautiful music,” Hadelich explains. “That actually got him into trouble with Boulez and Stockhausen and the orthodox postwar avant-garde, who were saying, ‘No, you shouldn’t be writing pretty music anymore.’”
Which is not to say that Dutilleux remained oblivious to the developments of his era, a “reactionary” who resisted change, though he frustrates music historians by not being readily classifiable. While his aesthetic is rooted in the tradition he inherited from Debussy and Ravel, Dutilleux was also deeply influenced by his encounters with the atonality of Schoenberg and company, and what he admired as their “principles of rigor.”
His style draws on a fascinating variety of impulses (some of which also include Stravinsky’s multilayered rhythmical complexity, Bartók’s atmospheric “night music,” and the textural experiments of Ligeti and Lutosławski).
Morlot, who got to know Dutilleux in his final years and who has been spearheading this most recent wave of advocacy by musicians, admires the composer’s unique amalgamation of influences that create a highly personal “sonic landscape.” Along with the French tradition of Debussy and Ravel, he says, “you have to keep in mind the music that was played in France when he grew up as a student.
“Prokofiev was a great influence—one that, he shared with me, he almost felt ashamed of. He uses all of these different tools to create an incandescence, like a blue flame that is always about to die—not the yellow, full-blazing quality of fire.
“This incandescence is the essence of Dutilleux’s style.”
Hadelich considers Dutilleux as part of a line “that goes from Ravel through Messiaen,” pointing out that his music actually has “very little consonance and yet is incredibly beautiful because of his atmospheric harmonic language. The changes in harmony are very much about color and atmosphere, as you find with the French on the early side of the 20th century, when the harmony changes the atmosphere and feelings.”
A good way to understand this approach, he adds, is to contrast Dutilleux’s use of harmony with the Germanic tradition so central to the repertoire, where “harmony is about tension and a harmonic journey, which then drives the whole. That’s true for most 19th-century music.”
L’arbre des songes contains many examples, Hadelich explains, such as a passage “in which the muted strings play these clusters that are not consonant but are vague, velvety textures that keep sliding back and forth. It feels like the sound is somehow caressing you.
“Dutilleux manages to write music that sounds beautiful without using triads or tonal harmonies.”
Meanwhile, Dutilleux’s awareness of contemporary trends is especially salient in a striking moment before the last section of L’arbre des songes—the “tree” being his symbol for a model of organic musical growth. He later added interludes to the score to bridge its four major sections. The last of these interludes calls for the whole orchestra to suddenly start tuning again.
With a look of bemusement, Hadelich points out that in practice this aleatory gesture did not jibe well with the hyper-meticulous composer. “He didn’t write out exactly what the players are supposed to do but was apparently unhappy with the result, because some of the players would go nuts in those few bars.
“He may have been shocked by the fact that when you give people freedom, not everyone has good taste!”
Ironically, some notable parallels can be drawn between Dutilleux and Boulez, that arch-Modernist who frequently loomed as his older colleague’s arch-enemy, making known his disapproval and even hostility. They both manifested a level of perfectionism, of meticulous attention to detail, that kept them intensely self-critical. Boulez and Dutilleux shared the precision of a jewel maker, but this limited their oeuvre to a very modest size despite the lengthy span of each composer’s career. And both drew deeply on their love of literature and the visual arts in their compositions.
The titles Dutilleux liked to append for several works point explicitly to his inspirations, although these cross-references should not be confused with Romantic program music. Baudelaire’s poetry—the source for Tout un monde lointain…—holds special prominence, while the composer memorialized his responses to the paintings of van Gogh (specifically, Starry Night) in the shimmering orchestral tapestry of Timbres, espace, mouvement (Timbres, space, movement), an orchestral work written, like Tout un monde lointain…, for Rostropovich (in this case, in his capacity as a conductor rather than cellist).
Yet because he did not fit in with his post-war avant-garde colleagues, Dutilleux—who was born midway between the generations of Olivier Messiaen and Pierre Boulez—became marginalized by the gatekeepers. “For many years he was never embraced by the music establishment in Europe or by academia,” according to Hadelich.
“In Germany he was almost never played. But it was musicians who kept playing him anyway, and that says a lot about the music.”
Nowadays there are at least 11 recordings of Tout un monde lointain… to choose among (including a vibrantly detailed account by Morlot and cellist Xavier Phillips, on the first volume of the SSO’s Dutilleux cycle).
Morlot believes that Dutilleux holds a special appeal for string players in particular because “his writing for the instrument, whether violin or cello, is about as skillful and well-crafted as one could imagine. Also, the quality of his rhythmic writing for the strings is remarkable.”
Hadelich concurs: “Technically, there are a couple places that are very challenging. But Dutilleux is an incredible orchestrator and knows exactly what is possible on each instrument. Compared to the more contemporary works I’ve played—the concertos of Thomas Adès and György Ligeti—his is much more idiomatic. The problems you face are mostly not technical but rather musical: What do you do with this phrase; what does this mean? You can’t just play it plainly: There’s always some special color that you have to bring out.
“It’s a specific style that you have to become familiar with.”
Dutilleux’s sole essay in the string quartet, Ainsi la nuit (1976) has attracted the likes of the Juilliard, Arditti, Orpheus, and Arcanto quartets, among others. Cellist Jean-Guihen Queyras, cellist of the Arcanto Quartet, finds Dutilleux’s music appealing because it is “very personal and evocative—very French in its texture.”
He describes Ainsi la nuit as being written in “a very free, rhapsodic form. Like Boulez, Dutilleux’s music doesn’t properly start and end somewhere; it rather appears and vanishes.”
While not on the level of Ravel’s landmark quartet, Dutilleux’s composition “is a moving piece of poetry, very touching and personal. But it doesn’t have the scope of a masterwork the way Tout un monde lointain… has.”
Morlot, himself a trained violinist, notes that when Dutilleux wrote his concertos he collaborated closely with “the most distinguished artists in the field—Rostropovich, Stern, Mutter—and was open to welcoming new suggestions from them. And the same is true for his pieces that include solo voice, which he wrote for Dawn Upshaw [the song cycle Correspondances, finished in 2003] and Renée Fleming [Le temps, l’horloge, a song cycle completed in 2009 and his final major work].”
Morlot also stresses Dutilleux’s wonders as an orchestrator: “For me, the magic in this music is that he will treat the percussion section the same way he treats the violin. The sound he has the cymbal produce is as outstanding as what he is doing with the violin.”
“He always worked things over and over,” remarks Hadelich. “There’s a clear reason why his music is so beloved by players: because it’s very beautiful music, so interesting, with so much detail, where every line, every gesture counts.
“You never get bored by it. Once you realize how beautiful it sounds, you can’t get enough of it.”
5 recommended recordings to explore the work of this remarkable French composer
L’arbre des songes Augustin Hadelich’s Grammy Award–winning account with Ludovic Morlot and the Seattle Symphony; includes the orchestral Métaboles and Symphony No. 2 (Le Double) (Seattle Symphony Media)
Tout un monde lointain… The canonical recording made by Mstislav Rostropovich, for whom Dutilleux wrote this cello concerto; Serge Baudo conducts the Orchestre de Paris (remastered for EMI’s Great Recordings of the Century)
Quatuors à cordes The Arcanto Quartet paired Ainsi la nuit with the string quartets of Debussy and Ravel for context (Harmonia Mundi)
Timbres, espace, mouvement Yan Pascal Tortelier conducting the BBC Philharmonic (Chandos)
Correspondances With Barbara Hannigan as the soloist and Esa-Pekka Salonen conducting the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France (Deutsche Grammophon)