Dutilleux: Métaboles

Henri Dutilleux was born in Angers, France on January 22, 1916, and died in Paris on May 22, 2013. Métaboles was commissioned by the Cleveland Musical Arts Association on the occasion of the fortieth anniversary of the Cleveland Orchestra. Dutilleux began composing Métaboles in 1959, and he completed the score in 1964. The work is dedicated to George Szell, who conducted the premiere with the Cleveland Orchestra on January 14, 1965. Kent Nagano conducted the first San Francisco Symphony performance in January 1990; the most recent performances, in November 2009, were conducted by Semyon Bychkov. The work is scored for two flutes (both doubling piccolo), three oboes and English horn, clarinet in E-flat, two clarinets in B-flat, bass clarinet, three bassoons and contrabassoon, four horns, four trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, two temple blocks, snare drum, three tom-toms, bass drum, small suspended cymbal, Chinese cymbal, two tam-tams (one large and one of medium size), crash cymbals, triangle, cowbell, xylophone, glockenspiel, celesta, harp, and strings. Performance time: about nineteen minutes.

“Clearly, there is a form that is particular to each composition, according to an interior evolution. This problem of musical forms, of structures that move away from prefabricated models, preoccupies me more and more.” Henri Dutilleux wrote these significant lines for the journal Les Nouvelles Littéraires in 1961, two years after he had begun to compose Métaboles. The words are those of a composer in the throes of deliberate self-examination, grappling with aesthetic precepts and formulating principles that will refine the creative process.

Almost twenty years earlier, Dutilleux had begun the quest for his own compositional voice. He sought a distinct personal language unfettered by the rigid academic tenets of his conservatory training, yet one not subservient to the reactionary doctrines of the avant-gardists. His mission caused him to tread an individual and solitary path, guided by the integrity of his artistic vision and the infallible instinct of his poetic sensibility. The result of his exploration and probity has been the creation of a body of works startling in originality, stylistic unity, and refinement. Today, Dutilleux’s visionary art is a unique sound-world of mystery and inquietude, where aural phenomena generate kinetic structures of exceptional clarity and logic. The “problem of musical forms” has been solved, and the long gestation of Métaboles,from Dutilleux’s initial jottings to the work’s completion five years later, would play a seminal role in that reconciliation.

To trace the genesis of Dutilleux’s distinctive musical language, we turn to his childhood at Douai, the city in northern France to which his parents returned following the German occupation. There, under the encouragement and influence of his grandfather, Julien Koszul, Dutilleux’s musical talents were discovered and developed. Koszul was director of the conservatory at nearby Roubaix, and he spoke often of such musical luminaries as Saint-Saëns and particularly of his good friend Fauré, who had been a fellow classmate at the École Niedermayer in Paris. Dutilleux entered the conservatory at Douai to begin rigorous classical training in piano, harmony, and counterpoint. His early compositional efforts from this period bear the unmistakable imprint of Fauré and Ravel. In 1933, Dutilleux entered the Paris Conservatory, where he was subsequently awarded first prizes in harmony, counterpoint, and fugue. In Paris, he heard music of Stravinsky, Bartók, Roussel, and other “revolutionary” composers, and this music broadened his own resources. His achievements at the conservatory were capped in 1938, when he won the Prix de Rome for a cantata on Solomon and the Queen of Sheba.

His stay in Rome cut short by the outbreak of World War II, Dutilleux returned to Paris. This was the start of his period of intense self-examination, during which, in a conscious attempt to escape the influence of Ravel (whose music Dutilleux particularly admired), he destroyed many of his own compositions. At the same time, he began to confront the implications of the tremendous upheavals occurring in the music world, particularly that of the post-Webern “crisis,” and he set about reconciling these manifestations with his own style. The nature of Dutilleux’s personal evolution is summarized in a biographical sketch by Jean Roy: “Part of a classical tradition tempered by the harmonic and instrumental acquisitions of impressionist music, he takes clear conscience from 1944 of the problems of language which posed themselves to contemporary musicians, and which have forbidden turning back. It is at first by a purification of thought and sentiment that Dutilleux accomplishes the necessary revolution. He rejects all that seems false, does not seek to amaze, and follows the quest of an interior truth.” These years of analysis and retrenchment brought a number of auspicious premieres, including the brilliant Sonatine for flute (1942), written as a test piece for students at the Paris Conservatory. In 1945, Dutilleux was appointed director of music productions for French Radio, an event that would have a significant bearing on the composer’s continuing stylistic development. Here he came into contact with musicians of diverse orientations and disciplines, and he refined his own technique through composing music for radio, film, and theater.

In 1951, international acclaim followed the premiere of Dutilleux’s First Symphony, a work which exhibits both a new maturity and the manifestation of an aesthetic that will inform his future compositions. The composer adumbrates the importance of this sensibility in a description of the work: “The music emerges from shadow in the first measures, and plunges back in the very last ones. Thus a transition is established between the real world and the imaginary. It is a bit like the birth and unfolding of a dream.” Dutilleux creates his allusive worlds through timbral alternations of brilliant light and mysterious shadings, through supple rhythms and a remarkable mobility of musical gesture, and through a harmonic language that oscillates between atonality and modality. His Second Symphony, commissioned by the Koussevitzky Foundation and premiered in 1959, garnered praise from critics who lauded the work’s “extraordinary poetic aura . . . [and] architectonic and orchestral structure.”

Mastery of form was Dutilleux’s chief concern when he began to compose Métaboles. Indeed, the work’s very title—which can be translated as “Metamorphoses”—suggests that the structural and evolutionary aspects of the work are of considerable significance. “The rhetorical term Métaboles, appliedto a musical form,” Dutilleux explains, “reveals my intention: to present one or several ideas in a different order and from different angles, until, by successive stages, they are made to change character completely.” This formulation defines the procedural framework within which the work’s “interior evolution” (to borrow the term from Dutilleux’s self-revelatory remark in Les Nouvelles Littéraires) can manifest itself. Métaboles is cast as a single unit to be played without pause, but it is partitioned into five large, overlapping structural units of contrasting character. In discussing the formal construction, Dutilleux states that:

In each section, the initial motif (melodic, rhythmic, harmonic) undergoes a series of transformations. At a certain stage of evolution, the deformation is so marked that it gives birth to a new motif which appears in the symphonic texture. This motif serves as a primer for the next section, and so on until the last piece, in which the initial motif of the work stands out in the coda, in a long ascending movement. There is a deliberate choice of instruments corresponding to the different forms used in each section: predominant woodwind with abundance of sound in the first; supremacy of the strings in the second, with increasingly numerous divisions, brass uppermost, in the third; the almost exclusive use of percussion elements in the fourth; fusion of these different groups in the last.

To further delineate the five episodes, Dutilleux heads each with a descriptive indication alluding to the general character of the music: I. Incantatory, II. Linear, III. Obsessive, IV. Torpid, V. Flamboyant. He cautions, however, that there is no underlying descriptive program or narrative. Instead, “as the general title sufficiently shows, the composer, in imagining this work, has constantly referred to the mysterious and fascinating world of eternal metamorphosis. The spirit and form of the music thus find their origin in a powerful contemplation of nature.”

The germ of Dutilleux’s essay on metamorphosis is presented at the outset as a summons—a series of chords in the woodwinds with abrupt punctuations by pizzicato strings, xylophone, celesta, and harp. The melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic components of this woodwind incantation will effect the work’s subsequent transformations and evolution. Solo wind roulades, like lambent flickerings, are unleashed to enliven the texture. A solo trumpet presents a decorated version of the initial theme, the first instance of the constant variation to which the theme will be treated. Midway in the episode, the strings introduce in octaves a second variation of the woodwind motif, very softly and expressively. This second variant, which has undergone subtle rhythmic modifications and a melodic extension, will be further transformed and used to begin the next major section, a poetic and luminous contemplation for divided strings. The third episode, “Obsessive,” is marked by mysterious pizzicatos and staccatos. A solo bass reveals material newly evolved—this time, the characteristic intervals of the initial theme have been exploded, so that formerly narrow melodic intervals now appear in their wider, inverted forms. Serene brass chords provide a sonorous connective tissue in the fourth episode. Between their utterances, Dutilleux has created a contrasting texture of extreme fragmentation. Percussion predominates, with inchoate, barely audible particles of sound and timbre, while clarinets and bass clarinet emerge sporadically, their rapid figurations more extended and complex at each appearance. The final section, “Flamboyant,” gathers the disparate elements of the preceding movements. Here, the initial germ of Métaboles has further evolved to a passage of running sixteenth notes, and in a central portion of the episode, this new variant is presented in a fugato-like texture in the strings. When the initial theme from the beginning of the work reappears, high in the strings riding over an enlivened texture of unflagging momentum and vibrancy, we hear aural testimony of Dutilleux’s avowed “penchant towards a certain type of sonority—what might be called the ‘joy of sound.’ ”

If Métaboles indeed served as a workshop for Dutilleux’s investigations of a composition’s “interior evolution,” the work’s self-assured perfectionism, of form and of timbre, betrays no hint of tentativeness or experimentation.

Ronald Gallman

Ronald Gallman is the San Francisco Symphony’s Director of Education/Youth Orchestra.

More About the Music

Recordings: Semyon Bychkov conducting the Orchestre de Paris (Philips)|  Yan Pascal Tortelier conducting the BBC Philharmonic (Chandos)  |  Michel Plasson conducting the Orchestre National du Capitole de Toulouse (EMI)  |  The Orchestre National de France has also recorded the work with Jean Martinon conducting (Ades)

Reading:  Henri Dutilleux: His Life and Works, by Caroline Potter (Ashgate) |  Henri Dutilleux:  Music—Mystery and Memory, Conversations with Claude Glayman, translated by Roger Nichols (Ashgate)  |  Most other writings are in French, including an exemplary chapter on the composer in Jean Roy’s Présences contemporaines, musique français, which, however, covers Dutilleux’s life and work only through 1960.  |  The most complete study to date is a monograph by Pierrette Mari, Henri Dutilleux: Sa vie, L’homme et la créateur, Son oeuvre, which is supplemented with a selection of Dutilleux’s own writings about music (Zurfluh).