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Dutilleux means to point out that the context and combination of different kinds of musical events make us hear the individual ideas anew each time.

Composition and premiere: Not atypically for Dutilleux, he composed Métaboles slowly, completing it several years after the 40th anniversary season (1958-59) of the Cleveland Orchestra for which is it was commissioned. He completed the score in 1964, dedicating it to the conductor George Szell, who led the premiere on January 14, 1965. The first Boston Symphony Orchestra performances were conducted by Charles Dutoit in April 1985. The Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra, led by Reinbert de Leeuw, gave the only previous performance of Métaboles at Tanglewood, in Ozawa Hall on August 14, 1997.

It was said of Henri Dutilleux that his work stood outside of the main, hotly debated currents of post-World War II concert music—the serialism-vs.-tonality debates, in brief. That said, a quintessentially French approach to harmony, resonance, and timbre has informed all of his important pieces and has much in common with timbre-focused concerns of such composers as Olivier Messiaen and Pierre Boulez, transforming a tradition with its roots in Ravel and Debussy. Although formally he diverged from Messiaen, being drawn to more traditionally “classical” structures and use of materials, details of his older colleague’s harmonic language were strongly influential for Dutilleux (especially from the 1960s on). Dutilleux frequently drew inspiration from literary or visual sources, and many of his works explore the relationship between experienced, musical time and measured, clock time, as in his Les Temps l’Horloge and The shadows of time, both works commissioned by the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

Born in Angers, Dutilleux attended the Paris Conservatoire and won the Prix de Rome, but the catastrophic disruption of World War II diverted him from what might have been a more predictable career as a composer. For many years, beginning in the 1940s he was director of music for Radio France; he later taught at the École Normale de Musique and the Paris Conservatoire. He destroyed his compositional output from the early part of his career, acknowledging his Piano Sonata (1947) as his opus 1, and earned a reputation for measured, careful perfectionism. Many years separate his major works, most of which were commissioned by major ensembles or individuals. He wrote his violin concerto L’Arbre des songes for Isaac Stern, and the cello concerto “Tout un monde lointain...” for Mstislav Rostropovich. His Métaboles was a commission for the Cleveland Orchestra, Timbres, espace, mouvement for Rostropovich and the National Symphony Orchestra, and his Sur la même accord was commissioned by the violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter. His small chamber-music output includes several works for solo piano (many written for his wife, Geneviève Joy), the string quartet Ainsi la nuit (composed for the Juilliard Quartet), and Les Citations, Diptych for oboe, harpsichord, double bass, and percussion, written for the Aldeburgh Festival.

The Boston Symphony Orchestra has been a consistent proponent of Dutilleux’s music in the U.S., beginning with Charles Munch, who led the American premiere of the composer’s Symphony No. 1 and commissioned the Symphony No. 2, Le Double (1959), for the BSO’s 75th anniversary. The BSO co-commissioned Le Temps l’Horloge (2007), written for soprano Renée Fleming, for the orchestra’s 125th anniversary, and all of Dutilleux’s major works are in the orchestra’s repertoire. The Boston Symphony Chamber Players performed and recorded Les Citations. Among many performances of Dutilleux’s work at Tanglewood, the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra performed The shadows of time in 2005 and 2017. Dutilleux was composer-in-residence with the TMC in 1995; that summer Irvine Arditti played the violin concerto L’arbe des songes with the TMCO. He returned as TMC faculty in 1998. Following Dutilleux’s death, in 2013 BSO cellist Mickey Katz played one of the composer’s Three Strophes for solo cello in memoriam during that year’s Festival of Contemporary Music.

The composer provided the following description of his piece for the original performances:

In each [section], the main motif—melodic, rhythmic, harmonic, or simply instrumental—undergoes successive transformations, as in the processes adopted in the domain of “variation.” At a given stage of evolution—toward the end of each piece—the distortion is so charged as to engender a new motif, which appears as a filigree under the symphonic texture. It is this figure that “sets the bait” for the next piece, and so on until the last piece, where the initial motif from the beginning of the work is profiled above the coda, in a long rising movement.

The first piece corresponds in general to the design of an enlarged rondo: refrain—couplet [verse or episode]—variation of the refrain—variation of the couplet—refrain.

The second piece presents the aspect of a Lied [song].

The third piece, despite its rapid motion, follows strictly the pattern of a passacaglia. Its ostinato, based on a twelve-tone motive, exposes the largest number of possible figures: original state—retrograde—inversion —retrograde of the inversion—augmentation—diminution—inversion of the intervals—rhythmic distortion—instrumental subdivision, etc.

The fourth piece is built upon a single chord of six notes: A-flat, C, D, E, F-sharp, G—shown in different order and instrumental registers as corresponding musical synonyms.

The last piece resembles a scherzo whose central Trio section utilizes the principal motive, rhythmically distorted.

The composer also wrote, “The rhetorical term ‘métaboles,’ applied to a musical form, reveals my intention: to present one or several ideas in a different order and from different angles, until, by successive stages, they are made to change character completely.” As one can discern from the composer’s use of poetic terms such as “couplet” and “refrain,” the device is literary or, as he says, rhetorical: when the order of words in a statement is reverse or changed, the meaning of those phrases might be completely different, e.g., John F. Kennedy’s famous “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.” In larger collections of terms (or musical gestures), the possibilities of meanings expand greatly. Dutilleux means to point out that the context and combination of different kinds of musical events make us hear the individual ideas anew each time.

The BSO’s most recent performances of Dutilleux’s Métaboles were under Andris Nelsons’ direction in April 2016.

Robert Kirzinger

Composer and writer Robert Kirzinger is the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s Director of Program Publications.