Henri Dutilleux, who has died at the age of 97, was a fiercely independent composer who left an exclusive catalogue of works that are steeped in the languid sensuousness of Debussy yet touched by the hand of modernism.
He was no admirer of dogma, and sharp in his dismissal of serialism. He once said of Pierre Boulez: ‘I don’t speak about him, and he doesn’t speak about me.’
Dutilleux was a notorious perfectionist and his published works are not numerous for a man of his long years; but his individual voice won a place in the hearts of countless artists.
He studied harmony, counterpoint and piano in northern France before studies at the Paris Conservatoire. In 1938 he won the Prix de Rome for his cantata L’anneau du roi, but his stay in the Italian capital was curtailed by war.
He served in the army as a medical orderly before returning to Paris to work as a pianist, arranger and music teacher. He went on to conduct the Paris Opera choir, then was head of music production at French Radio for 18 years from 1945. He was twice chosen as composer-in-residence at Tanglewood.
Notable among Dutilleux’s works are Tout un monde lointain, an extraordinary five-part concerto written for cellist Mstislav Rostropovich in 1970, two symphonies, a series of pieces for voice and orchestra, and some chamber music, including Ainsi la nuit, a widely praised string quartet.
He remained active until the end of his life and celebrated his 97th birthday on 22 January this year with the release of a world premiere recording of his Correspondances for soprano and orchestra, along with new recordings of Tout un monde lointain and the orchestral piece The Shadows of Time for orchestra and three children’s voices.
In February the Grammys gave the Best Classical Vocal Solo award to Renée Fleming for a recording which included two of his works, Le Temps l’horloge, written specifically for Fleming, and Deux Sonnets de Jean Cassou, which the composer asked her to take into her repertoire.
Appraising his work in the Guardian, Tom Service wrote of music ‘which seduces you into a faraway world of heightened feeling. I defy you not to be won over by this music.’