Charles Dutoit had a long personal and professional relationship with Henri Dutilleux, the great French composer who died Wednesday at age 97. Speaking from Singapore Wednesday night, Dutoit called Dutilleux one of the most important composers of the second half of the 20th century, and offered these reflections.
I met him in Boston, when I was a student, when Munch was conducting the first performance of his Second Symphony [in 1959], which was commissioned by the Boston Symphony Orchestra. I was there for the concert of course, but I met him only by complete chance the next morning. I was going back to New York for my flight to Europe, and who was seated next to me but Dutilleux himself. I was trying to talk to him, but he was very shy, and eventually I asked him if he was going to Paris, and he said no, he was going to New York to hear Stravinsky conduct his [Stravinsky's] Movements for Piano and Orchestra. I was completely overwhelmed by the news, because Stravinsky played such an important role in my life, since he spent the first World War in my country [Switzerland], where he composed The Soldier's Tale. So Dutilleux actually gave me the way to meet Stravinsky in New York.
Twenty years later in Montreal, I invited several composers in residence there, and the first one was Messiaen, the second was Xenakis, and the third was Dutilleux. We performed the American premiere of the Violin Concerto with Isaac Stern in Carnegie Hall, and then Boston. Dutilleux was with us and we became great friends. I did the first performances in Paris of some of his works, I recorded the Violin Concerto and the Cello Concerto for Erato, and I took his music all over the world.
He was a very old-fashioned gentleman, we would write letters, only hand-written letters. He was a humble, intellectual musician. His way of writing music was like Ravel's – the orchestrations so precise, everything the result of deep thinking. The sad part is that he composed very little in fact. He would tell me how slowly he was composing. Picasso could complete a picture in a day, but it took Dutilleux several years to come up with a new piece. [Pianist Jean-Yves] Thibaudet said why not write a piece for piano and orchestra, and he was very sort of – he could not answer. It's strange that he was married to a pianist and he never wrote for piano and orchestra.
The first symphony is very complicated, but in a style more traditional. Then he became more and more sophisticated. He was a master. He had this incredible gift of writing for orchestra and producing the sound he felt. I am sure he was feeling exactly the way he was writing, because otherwise you cannot write music so precisely. It was completely controlled. His death was expected, but it is a very big loss.