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Henri Dutilleux, Symphony No.

I've been fascinated by Dutilleux since my youthful accompanist presented a concert of his piano works
some 15 years ago after winning a competition to study with the renowned composer. He was perhaps
the first modern composer I was aware of. And I have always enjoyed his works. Except once,
actually, when I went to a concert ofthe SF Symphony led by Rostropovich at which they were to play
one of his mid scale works ( the exact piece escapes me) and substituted for it a miniscule fanfare. The
composer however was not to blame
In his First Symphony, Henri Dutilleux creates a continuous sensation of sonic emergence.
Around every corner and turn of phrase lurks the unknown. And yet, while one is continuously
confronted with mystery, the piece as a whole feels firmly rooted in tradition, giving the listener a
position of stability from which to experience this wonderful and bizarre work.
On a fist listen, one is confronted with an amazing array of colours. And while Dutilleux does
employ an impressive sonic arsenal, it is more his grasp of colour than his use of instruments for their
shock value that that lends the piece its richness. Nowhere does one find wind machines, whips or
anvils and yet the interplay of breakneck speeds in the strings met with a snare drum and blaring horns
out does all three for affect (see figure 1) at the close of the second movement scherzo. Earlier in the
same movement Dutilleux uses his one impressive trick to create an outstanding timbral shift. In this
instance we have the clarinets and bassoons rattling out the staccato theme together in a monotone
manner before the figure is taken over by the celesta doubled at the octave by the flutes and passed up
an additional octave in doubled octaves by the piano principal flute and piccolo. The orchestra carries
on this way until the theme exhausts itself in a sequence of frantic runs and trills that last until the
earlier stacatto theme catches its breath and drives to the end of the movement.
It is in the next movement (intermezzo) that Dutilleux's emergent style does him the least good.
The shift in tone at the beginning of the movement, played attacca on the chandos recording of Yan
Pascalier Tortellier's BBC Philharmonic is truly remarkable. The surging chords in the brass open up
the listening space to an immense degree. Inchoat themes creep out of the woodwork and are handed
around the orchestra;s sections. Everybody gets a shot at them. But they don't really go anywhere.
Instead they are menaced into submission by a thunderous bass line. Elsewhere in the piece this has
been used to great advantage. The very opening infact has a similar feel. Distant rhythms preclude a
litling figure whise colours hold one in wonder. But whereas at the onpening the grotesque path taken

by the theme leaves on thrilled like a good shocking suspense film, by theis point in the third
movement. It feels like old hat stuff. By this point some development seems in order.
It's interesting to take this notion of emergence one step further and look at Dutilleux's position
as a composer. At least the one he presents with this symphony. The rich symphonic textures and tamed
exoticisms place him as a follower of Debussy. Indeed the opening movement could be a movements
from the latter composers images. A thunderstorm in place of Debussy's floating Nuages. This however
does not do either composer justice. At other points in the work we are also presented with
Stravinskyesque rhythms and patterns, and disfigured dances that harken back to Ravels Bolero. One
can even hear the demonic urgency of Berlioz's Symphony Fantastique in the scherzo. Not to mention
the false naivete of form Berlioz used.
And so we have here an image of Dutilleux the composer/ Certainly, by this point (1951, around
35 years of age) a confident and individual composer and yet one firmly rooted in the tradition of
France's avant garde, rather than one like Messiaen or Boulez. Poised to over throw it once again.
Reaching, after the languid, though thoroughly lovely intermezzo, the fourth movement, we are
presented with a theme and variations Finale. A form dating back to the good old classical days. But not
so. We aren't so much played the theme as blasted with it by the horns. Its then repeated nicely at a
genial volume and given a nice shape before Dutilleux gives it directly again in a joking manner. And
yet this joviality is not in the Haydn sense of a wry smile at the clever turn but a mocking, laughing at
the audience sarcasm that throws the notes in your face with a bronx (or perhaps Left Bank) cheer. This
proceeds for a bit. The theme shifting but again, not really going anywhere until a miraculous thing
happens and were in the middle of a scherzo. Not a scherzando variation, but a complete submovement here in the finale. And then it became clear to me what was going on. The last movement
was in itself a symphony in miniature. Recapitulating itself formally in a concise abbreviated manner. It
almost made sense. It was all there. The lilting basso march of the introduction the angular triplet
scherzo and the swelling and melodic Intermezzo. And then with a beautiful extended cadence, perhaps
as moving a symphnonic moment as has ever been written, It was gone.