The Determined Independent

It took Henri Dutilleux more than 30 years to discover his personal style as a composer. He spent the early part of his career absorbing ideas and material from other composers, but grew increasingly concerned that his works would be considered derivative of the great French composers that came before him. Some have suggested that Dutilleux suffered from 'anxiety of influence', not wanting to be seen as influenced by composers of the past or even his contemporaries. However the task of finding a unique style is not a simple one, especially as music was becoming more accessible and influences harder to ignore. People were keen to make associations between stylistically similar composers, and Dutilleux was determined to avoid affiliated with Poulenc's Les Six, Messiaen's La Jeune France or the Schoenberg's Second Viennese School.

His Piano Sonata, written in 1946-8, became his Opus One, a work he was finally happy to have out in the world. His attention to detail can be seen in many aspects of his work. Dutilleux was another slow worker, agonizing over the appearance of his manuscripts. Coming from a family with a rich history in visual arts, Dutilleux channelled his lack of artistic ability into his music, creating aesthetically beautiful scores. He even went so far as to say "if I am not satisfied with a page of orchestral music from a purely visual point of view, then I feel something is wrong." Most of Dutilleux's mature works are considered to be of a remarkably high musical standard. This quality and strength of musical personality shows tremendous courage to stand up for his beliefs, and is what makes him one of France's most important 20th Century composers.

It is incredibly unfortunate then, that his best known work is one that was written during the exploratory chapter in his career. During the Second World War, Dutilleux grabbed hold of any work that came his way, including conducting student choirs and arranging music for bars and nightclubs. Understandably, he jumped at the offer from the director of the Paris Conservatoire to write four test pieces for students, for flute, oboe, bassoon and trombone. He considered these pieces to be trial works for his own purposes as well as the students who would have to play them, as the director wanted them to be "full of traps and technical difficulties." The resulting flute piece, Sonatine, has become a standard in the repertoire. Dutilleux considered the piece to exhibit too much of the charm, elegance and wit that were seen to be the trademarks of French music. The Sonatine certainly exudes charm, elegance and wit. Periods of mystery and disturbance alternate with light-hearted passages, as the piece struggles to decide what its ultimate conclusion will be.

Henri Dutilleux.jpg