Henri Dutilleux: Ainsi la Nuit

performed by the Arditti quartet, or below by the Belcea Quartet

The piece, as discussed below, is in a total of eleven different sections. For specific links to these sections within this recording, please see below. There’s also a video included in the article that is a must watch for this piece. It can be viewed here or below.

There’s a tendency—it’s almost entirely intuitive—not to present the theme in its definitive state at the beginning. [T]here are small cells which develop bit by bit. …This may perhaps show the influence of literature, of Proust and his notions about memory.

Henri Dutilleux

As a prelude to our musical thoughts, a thought about thoughts.
Recently (sometime in the past century), doctors and neurologists and that ilk have come to understand quite well the physical form the brain takes, with synapses and neurons and cells and nerves and everything that makes up that enormous system that we call the brain. That’s fine. But have you ever wondered what chemical form your thoughts take? I have.
Characteristics like hair and eye color, height, complexion, propensity for certain diseases, and on and on and on have all been linked to certain genes; they have a physical form that can be identified and monitored. But what about our thoughts? What combination of chemicals, proteins, amino acids or otherwise, combine in whatever way to allow you to remember your first day of Kindergarten or your wedding day? And if that could be identified, could they not be cooked up in a lab and poured onto some blank slate like a cake batter and voila a fresh new memory? I don’t know, but the idea of ideas has fascinated me for a while.

*  *  *

It was only upon reading about this piece in much more detail around a month ago that I began to see the composer’s real intentions and concepts behind the piece, and it’s an entirely new concept for me. Call it impressionist, but if Ravel or Debussy were dressing their music in costumes to make it look and sound and feel like other things, Dutilleux’s approach is to jump into your head and play with the wires in your brain until he achieves his desired result. But we’ll talk about that a bit later. First, about the composer.
Our first work out of four 20th century quartets chosen not quite at random is also the most modern piece we’ve written about on the blog so far, carrying a publishing date of 1976.
I found Dutilleux interesting, as he represents an important segment of French composition.
Perhaps it’s just me, but when I think of modern French music, a few names come to mind: Messiaen, Boulez (teacher and pupil), and Milhaud (who brings to mind Honegger and Poulenc) but among those two major groups, Dutilleux doesn’t really have a place. For one, the members of Les Six were much older than Dutilleux (b. 1916) who fits right between Messiaen (1908) and Boulez (1925) in age. He never did, however, go down any serialist paths. Dutilleux’s Wikipedia page says it this way:

Dutilleux’s music extends the legacies of earlier French composers such as Debussy and Ravel but is also clearly influenced by Béla Bartók and Igor Stravinsky. Among his favourite pieces, he mentioned Beethoven‘s late string quartets and Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande.

That’s an interesting way to think about it. Ravel and Debussy were ahead of their time in many ways, especially harmonically, and he ‘extended their legacies.’ I’ll buy that.
I say that, but granted, I have listened closely to very few of his works, a few piano pieces and some other things, so I can’t really speak to his entire output. Let’s keep it to this quartet.
This quartet, in fact, was the result of a Google search I made at some point as one of the most important things written for the string quartet in like, the past few hundred years. Wikipedia says “It is considered one of the most important works in the genre and has been called “… one of the treasures of the 20th century quartet repertoire.””
That was enough for me, so I started listening. Those two things were the most intriguing: important work, and NOT serialist or minimalist or complexity or spectralist or Darmstadt or any of those 20th century labels, but still modern, and so it kicks off our discussion of four semi-unrelated string quartets focused mainly on the more modern-ish of pieces.
We jump head first next week into serialist music, so I won’t go into that now, but suffice it to say, it’s a rigorous system of its own, embodying ideas and concepts that have the potential to be incredibly complex and strict, but at the same time seem so fluid and extemporaneous. Dutilleux’s music does not ‘belong’ to any particular system or school of thought, except maybe
just ‘French Impressionism,’ but not even that. Debussy relied and focused on the end result, the texture, the final product for his harmonies and compositional technique, and it seems that, at least while we’re making general statements, Dutilleux is doing the same.
It’s perhaps critical here to leave another caveat, that I am entirely unqualified to speak intelligently on this piece (and really the others in this little series), so… the happy medium I’m going for is barely, slightly more than layman’s terms… because there’s just a lot going on here I can’t discuss at any real depth.
That does lead me to another point, though, that I feel is of significance here. I believe I may have mentioned it before, or will soon, that much music that lacks a tonal center (avoiding the “atonal” appellation), especially music based on nontraditional patterns (be they impressionist/neurological or serialist) almost demand repeated listenings to digest and comprehend. By their very nature they are complex and unfamiliar, and require time to get to know. At least for me anyway. Steeper learning curve.
So upon first listening to this piece, it was, unsurprisingly, perplexing. I distinctly remember, strangely enough, the first time listening to this piece being on one of my rare trips to McDonald’s. In any case, it demands much greater attention to begin to appreciate than just background music.
After all, what’s going on is the developing of motifs, needless to say not your standard-issue harmonically plain melodies, either. What becomes readily apparent is that two things are very important: texture and structure. It’s these two things, at least to me, that the piece is built from rather than charming tunes. The piece does seem to outline or suggest a D major chord at times in the score, but it is by no means in the key of D. Wikipedia says:

The piece is based on series of studies which focus on different aspects of sound production: pizzicatos, harmonics, dynamics, contrasts, opposition of register.[1] It is built from a single hexachord that contains the notes C♯ – G♯ – F – G – C – D, thus highlighting the intervals of fifth and major second.[8] This chord constitutes the basis from which the whole string quartet is derived. The octatonic mode is also used extensively throughout the work.

The piece is laid out in seven major sections (the numbered ones below), and the first thirty seconds or so of the piece is a section not actually labeled introduction; it’s just what comes before the first titled section. The first five sections are each separated by ‘parentheses,’ small sections of about thirty or forty seconds long (at least in this recording).

Watch this video below. It could not be any better said than in this brief but educational and fascinating analysis:

 What more is there to say?

The piece began (as quoted from Wikipedia above) as a series of studies on different techniques and methods of sound production, called Nuits (nights), in preparation for this work. Wikipedia continues to describe it:

Ainsi la nuit displays progressive growth, a technique frequently used by Dutilleux and through which musical motifs can both recall music that was heard in earlier sections or hint at music that will be fully developed in later movements.[1][9] … Other techniques that are typical of Dutilleux can be found in the work such as fan-shaped phrases, a modal quality reminiscent of Gregorian chant as well as the highlighting of tonal triads in an atonal context.

There’s very little in this piece that evokes ‘night’ or ‘nocturnal’ stuff in the way that, say, Chopin’s nocturnes did. These are night-ish in a dark, kind of Guillermo del Toro fairytale way, if that makes sense. It’s dark and kind of frightening and spooky at times, but intricate and rich, at times subtle and luscious, at others terrifying. But again the main focus or purpose behind the piece is exploring this ‘neural pathways’ idea of identification and memory, so in its repetition and suggestion, Dutilleux is in some ways, spinning a Labyrinth of his own.
To summarize the video above, which is entirely unnecessary because it’s so perfect, you could think of the development or progress of the piece as an evolution. The rich, critically important opening double-stopped, interlocked perfect fifths as our jumping off point. From there, we have Nocturnes at the beginning and end, the slowest Miroir d’espace, two livelier Litanies, the fastest and liveliest Constellations, and the Temps Suspendu. 
There’s a balance to be struck with variation or development. No similarity at all, and the piece is through composed, with nothing having any familiarity, but too much familiarity and it’s all very repetitive. What happens in this piece is such subtle change of our opening idea, with embellishment by means of texture, that the changes are hardly noticeable, almost meant not to be noticeable, so that by the end, it all feels familiar, as the video above calls it, a “perpetual and inescapable moment of deja vu.” Perhaps this biggest impact, the greatest revelation of this is in the final section, perhaps the ultimate goal of the piece, when the original material returns. There’s really nothing much more to say but what was in the video. It’s sensual and rich and kind of spellbinding. Perhaps the strength or impact of this final section is a testament to the effectiveness of the tendrils the composer has grown out of this piece, how familiar they’ve become, what they suggest and recall.
I’m sure if I did some more studying and score analysis and the like that I’d find the answers to some of my questions, and they are these. I’m curious about a few main things: why do the ‘parentheses’ disappear after the fourth section? Is there some kind of symmetry between them, or do they just delineate sections and introduce the subsequent one? Parenthese III is, if counting the seven sections and four parentheses (but not the introduction, which isn’t titled as a section), the ‘center’ section of the piece, bookended by the ‘Litanies.’ Is this significant? The above video describes the relationships between the Litanies, the Nocturnes, but not as much the potential significance of the parentheses.
Maybe you question your own ability to recognize or appreciate the effects at play here. But is the music enjoyable? Or… do you at least not hate it? What will become even more important next week is to remember that it’s less important to understand than it is to listen and appreciate. Many people (many many of them) couldn’t explain to you why Chopin’s nocturnes are so appealing, or why Mozart’s works sound the way they do, or why Russian music sounds so Russian, but that doesn’t stop them from enjoying it. As complex as this work is, it’s a good example of the fact that you can (and perhaps even should, if you’re not a musician) enjoy these modern works without understanding a lick of the theory behind it, although I would argue that greater understanding leads to greater appreciation, fascination of the work, and next week’s pieces assuredly bear this out.
See you then.

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