Henri Dutilleux has died. His work as a musician and composer is, and like Stravinsky, will remain a pinnacle of accomplishment from our time; and given how long his creativity lasted, it is fair to say his achievements span multiple generations.
I had the great fortune of working with both of these great men. In my beginning career as an orchestral musician, Stravinsky came to conduct and record with the Cleveland Orchestra. I, somewhat shyly, went up to him to introduce myself and was prepared to follow up with a few minor questions about the music we were recording.
When I said my name and that I was Mack Harrell’s son he beamed with pleasure because only about 10 years earlier he recorded The Rake’s Progress with my father singing the role of Nick Shadow. Although prepared by Fritz Reiner, Stravinsky conducted the opera for the recording.
I have often thought if Piatigorsky had the personality of Rostropovich, we would indeed have a concerto by Stravinsky. He was very insistent about getting Stravinsky to write a concerto, and even went so far as to give Stravinsky a blank check. Stravinsky replied saying “You, Grisha, play the cello, a vrah sounding instrument, and I am a composer that writes, one might say, ‘ping’ music.” So, aside from Piatigorsky transcribing the Pulcinella music for cello and piano, he never did write for the cello.
Henri Dutilleux was a different story in that his music was altogether a manifestation of an inner need for expression. His interest in French music of the past and why it sounds distinctly different from Austrian or German music along with his interest in French writers and poets influenced everything he wrote.
I remember talking to him about a place in his string quartet, Ainsi la Nuit, that it reminded me of a moment in the string quintet of Schubert. It had the same idea of the viola and cello playing a lyrical phrase an octave apart but the cello on top and the viola underneath; it was so striking, just as striking in 1828 as from our time. Henri just smiled knowingly. He obviously had, like the vanishing generations of composers who very diligently studied the great music that had come before, studied late Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert, as well as the more recent Debussy and Ravel from that time.
I remember crossing paths with Dutilleux on a number of occasions. While still in Cleveland, he came to the world premiere of Metaboles; the music was such high quality that it became a very special occasion. Years later, in Paris when I was playing the Schumann concerto, I was so surprised and delighted that he had come to hear me.
It was shortly after that I was asked to perform his Tout en Monde Lointain in New York and Philadelphia. I came gradually to recognize that this work is not only one of the top five greatest works for the cello in the last 100 years but that it simply transcends the cello and is a work as important to the history of the greatest music; right alongside Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring.
My understanding of music, the cello, and poetry was transformed from this study. I had an opportunity to do the work a number of times with him in attendance. Each time, he would lovingly suggest this or that which would make it more meaningful, authentic, and communicative.
There are times in one’s life that have a lasting, indelible impression on development, maturation, and perception. I have been so very fortunate to have had contact with a number of great men such as Dutilleux. These experiences have been life changing ones for me, simply put; I am a better musician, and a better person, because of these moments. Thank you, Henri.