Dutilleux Symphony no. 1

performed by the Seattle Symphony under Ludovic Morlot, or as below with the Orchestre National de l’ORTF under Roger Albin

(cover image by John Towner)

One of the few composers in this series who isn’t appearing on the blog for the first time, Dutilleux’s Ainsi la Nuit, one of the greatest string quartets of the 20th (or any) century, appeared here a number of years ago, but we haven’t seen him since.

Today we will be discussing his first symphony, a really magnificent work. It’s a good example of what could have seemed before this series started like a problem. The French relationship with the symphony as a form was always sort of overshadowed (or something) by the people’s love of opera. That produced, especially in the 20th century, or at least among some of the pieces I’ve chosen to write about, some more unique approaches to the form.

Henri Dutilleux (this isn’t a biography) comes right between Messiaen and Boulez in the chronology of French music, and is much more like the former than the latter. He never did belong to any school, so we won’t even attempt to give him a classification in that way, but what we will see is that his approach to the form is at least in my opinion, spectacularly unique, but also not at all bereft of the qualities that link it back to the tradition of what a symphony is. It’s innovative but traditional.

The work is in four movements, as below, and has a playing time of about a half hour:

  1. Passacaglia
  2. Scherzo molto vivace
  3. Intermezzo
  4. Finale con variazioni

The work was premiered on June 7, 1951 at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées with the Orchestre National de France under Roger Désormière.

Out of the (at the time of this writing) more than 650 pieces of music I’ve written about in the past almost-five years, I can think only of two occasions on which a passacaglia has appeared in a symphony. Most notably, Brahms uses one in the final movement of his final symphony (the fourth) (and Webern’s op. 1 should also come to mind, although not a symphony), and then a more obscure piece, but a marvelous work indeed, in William Schuman’s third symphony.

Dutilleux, like Schuman a decade before him, uses a passacaglia in the first movement. As Wikipedia points out, the first and final movements are based on variations, bookending this symphony with that unique approach.

Wikipedia tells us that the first movement “consists of 35 repetitions of a four-bar bass motif, shown in the opening four bars by the double basses.” Rather than the sonata-form first movement we should expect, the music unfolds slowly, developing from that bass motif, as you would expect with a passacaglia. There’s a sense of happening, that we are constantly moving toward something. I wouldn’t necessarily call it ‘excitement;’ maybe momentum is a better word, but the music doesn’t stagnate or sit in anyone place for too long. That being said, it’s also not episodic. Dutilleux’s use of the already more than 400-year-old-form is organic and riveting, a wonderfully effective first movement.

The second movement scherzo is (just barely) the shortest of the symphony and is ferociously energetic. It, too, has the organic sense of growing, of spreading roots and shoots and becoming something enormous, although it started as something small and seemingly insignificant. Dutilleux’s scherzo initially presents delicate textures and colors, but it’s just the quiet purr of an idling engine that quickly roars to life. It’s showy and virtuosic and exceptionally intense, but at times exhibiting a restraint that is in itself breathtaking. It is a more traditional approach than the first movement, a true scherzo, absolutely hair-raising at times. It’s stunning.

The third movement is, perhaps a bit surreptitiously, also based on Dutilleux’s love of and talent with variation form. If you remember his Ainsi la Nuit, there’s the presentation of content based on a theme that is only later revealed to be the basis for all the material before it, what Wikipedia calls ‘reverse variation’ form, which I find fascinating. Although the movement is titled ‘intermezzo,’ it is in fact longer than the scherzo and only slightly shorter than the opening passacaglia, and hence feels like less of a break and more like just a slow movement, which is more than fine.

If you haven’t noticed yet, Dutilleux’s touch with orchestral color is superb, and this intermezzo is a journey in itself, an intoxicating landscape that makes us forget this is his “first purely orchestral composition.” What does make the movement somewhat diminutive is that it ends sort of abruptly, or without much sense of conclusion, leading then to the grand explosion of sound that begins the finale.

This movement is the longest of the symphony, nearly twice as long as any previous movement. After this initial burst of color and energy, there is some controlled chaos, a slow burn as the movement progresses, again a theme with variations, magical use of piano, but the movement eventually settles into a calmer yet still enchanting and at times mysterious landscape. The movement, and the entire piece, finishes delicately, which is in many ways the name of the game in this symphony. For all its power and roar, there is an overwhelming amount of softness and finesse in this work, so remarkable for a composer’s first symphony.

It’s also an undeniably compelling example of a very effective 20th century symphony, something that is able to work on both counts, a work of modernity, but also one that does justice to the form, a true symphony.

If you want to read an article I intended to read but still haven’t about the close relationship between Morlot and Dutilleux, then check out this article, which actually has ‘Bromance’ in the title.

That’s all for now, but I want to reemphasize how impressed I am with what a stellar piece of music this is, such a gem.

We’re in our final week of French pieces in this series, so there are only three more installments to go. Please stay tuned for those, and thank you so much for reading.

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