Skip to main content

Death of Henri Dutilleux

NEC Remembers French composer who gave memorable masterclass for composition students

NEC Mourns the Death of Composer Henri Dutilleux

Gave Composition Students Guidance and Practical Advice on their Scores in 1997 Masterclass

New England Conservatory joins the music world in mourning the death of French composer, Henri Dutilleux, who died in Paris Wednesday at the age of 97. Renowned for his painstakingly and exquisitely crafted musical works, Dutilleux visited Boston on just a few occasions for performances of his works. One of those took place in fall 1997 when the Boston Symphony Orchestra presented the world premiere of a commissioned work, The Shadows of Time.  It was during this time that Dutilleux came to NEC at the invitation of then composition co-chair Lee Hyla and worked extensively with Conservatory composition students.

He talked generally about music composition during the 20th century—The period of Les Six was a “lightweight period,” stronger for the visual arts than for music.  After the Second World War, there was “a lot at the same time—perhaps too much at the same time for young composers…a very rich period, perhaps too rich.” Then he zeroed in on students’ scores and offered pragmatic tips: In writing a concerto, he explained, it’s important to give the section players—not just the soloist—something to do, in order to keep the entire orchestra engaged in the piece.”

Dutilleux himself steered an independent course among that myriad of stylistic choices he observed in his 20th century colleagues.  NEC composer-conductor-flutist John Heiss described him as a combination of “old and new, traditional and avant-garde, sensual and calculated. He was very French in the old way—that is, in the way sonority is always in the foreground, is the principal building material.” The music is “absolutely beautiful and original, lyrical and gentle, luminous in its gesture and detail.”

To Dutilleux, Heiss applied a maxim stated by Olivier Messiaen, another of the great French 20th Century masters. “‘Never forget the value of harmony to a Frenchman. and that value is the color. The value of a chord is not so much in its harmonic progression and implications but in its color.’”

Cellist Laurence Lesser, President Emeritus and Naumburg Chair in Music, is also an admirer of Dutilleux’s music and has played it himself and programmed it on NEC’s First Monday at Jordan Hall concerts. “Dutilleux was the natural successor to Claude Debussy,” he said. “His incredibly refined ear directed him to use sonority in the most compelling way.”

Paul Foley photograph


Recognized nationally and internationally as a leader among music schools, New England Conservatory in Boston, MA offers rigorous training in an intimate, nurturing community to 720 undergraduate, graduate, and doctoral music students from around the world.  Its faculty of 225 boasts internationally esteemed artist-teachers and scholars.  Its alumni go on to fill orchestra chairs, concert hall stages, jazz clubs, recording studios, and arts management positions worldwide.  Nearly half of the Boston Symphony Orchestra is composed of NEC trained musicians and faculty.

The oldest independent school of music in the United States, NEC was founded in 1867 by Eben Tourjee. Its curriculum is remarkable for its wide range of styles and traditions.  On the college level, it features training in classical, jazz, contemporary improvisation, world and early music. Through its Preparatory School, School of Continuing Education, and Community Programs and Partnerships Program, it provides training and performance opportunities for children, pre-college students, adults, and seniors.  Through its outreach projects, it allows young musicians to engage with non-traditional audiences in schools, hospitals, and nursing homes—thereby bringing pleasure to new listeners and enlarging the universe for classical music, jazz, and contemporary improvisation.

NEC presents more than 900 free concerts each year, many of them in Jordan Hall, its world- renowned, century-old, beautifully restored concert hall.  These programs range from solo recitals to chamber music to orchestral programs to jazz, contemporary improvisation, and opera scenes.  Every year, NEC’s opera studies department also presents two fully staged opera productions at the Cutler Majestic Theatre or Paramount Theatre in Boston.

NEC is co-founder and educational partner of From the Top, a weekly radio program that celebrates outstanding young classical musicians from the entire country. With its broadcast home in Jordan Hall, the show is now carried by National Public Radio and is heard on 250 stations throughout the United States.

Contact: Ellen Pfeifer
Senior Communications Specialist
New England Conservatory
290 Huntington Ave.
Boston, MA 02115