Henri Dutilleux, Correspondances

by Byron Adams

Written for the concert Mimesis: Musical Representations, performed on October 16, 2015 at Carnegie Hall.

Born January 22, 1916, in Angers, France
Died May 22, 2013, in Paris
Composed in 2003
Premiered September 5, 2003, at the Philharmonie in Berlin by the Berliner Philharmoniker, which commissioned the piece in 1983, conducted by Simon Rattle with soprano Dawn Upshaw
Performance Time: Approximately 23 minutes
Instruments for this performance: 2 flutes, 1 piccolo, 2 oboes, 1 English horn, 2 clarinets, 1 bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, 3 French horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, 1 tuba, timpani, percussion (suspended cymbal, tam-tam, 3 bongos, 3 tom-toms, snare drum, bass drum, marimba), 1 celeste, 1 harp, 1 accordion, 32 violins, 12 violas, 12 cellos, 8 double-basses, and solo soprano

A noble man who participated in the French Resistance during the Second World War, Henri Dutilleux was, with Messiaen, one of the two true heirs to the grand tradition established by his predecessors Fauré, Ravel, Dukas, and Debussy. But these composers in turn inherited the aesthetic principals bequeathed to them by the incandescent poet Charles Baudelaire. Both Fauré and Debussy set poetry by Baudelaire, and Ravel cultivated the idea of the Baudelairean dandy in both his life and art. Like Ravel, Dutilleux was a fastidious composer who refused to court easy popularity. Dutilleux composed slowly and meticulously: he was undisturbed if a score took twenty years to complete. In other words, he valued perfection over facility, elegance over prolificacy, and the lapidary over the ephemeral.

So it comes as no surprise to learn that Dutilleux’s ravishing song cycle Correspondances was commissioned by the Berliner Philharmoniker in 1983 and premiered in its final form on September 5, 2003—twenty years later. Dedicated to Dawn Upshaw and Sir Simon Rattle, Correspondances is a Baudelairean score filled with subtle connections between music, literature, and painting. As the composer noted, “The work’s general title, Correspondances, beyond the different meanings that could be given to this word, refers to Baudelaire’s famous poem, ‘Correspondances,’ and to the synaesthesias he himself evoked.” The opening lines of Baudelaire’s poem may well provide a clue to Dutilleux’s music: “Nature is a temple where living pillars / Let escape sometimes confused words.”

As Baudelaire’s aesthetic of synaesthesia, the blending of sensory stimuli and responses, included the visual as well as the auditory, Dutilleux likewise followed Baudelaire’s example by evoking painting through setting a text drawn from a letter written by Vincent Van Gogh to his devoted brother Théo: “I go outside in the night to paint the stars . . . to feel the stars and the clear infinite shining heavens above.” Indeed, during this movement, Dutilleux, himself the grandson of a distinguished painter, quotes from his orchestral score Timbres, espace, mouvement ou La Nuit etoilée (1978), a work that was inspired by Van Gogh’s magnificent painting “Starry Night.”

Byron Adams is Professor of Musicology at the University of California, Riverside.