Henri Dutilleux (1916 - 2013) String Quartet “Ainsi la nuit”
I. Nocturne II. Miroir d’espace III. Litanies IV. Litanies 2 V. Constellations VI. Nocturne 2 VII. Temps Suspendu
…as soon as I had recognized the taste of the piece of madeleine soaked in her decoction of lime-blossom which my aunt used to give me…immediately the old grey house upon the street, where her room was, rose up like a stage set to attach itself to the little pavilion opening on to the garden which had been built out behind it for my parents; and with the house the town, from morning to night and in all weathers, the square where I used to be sent before lunch, the streets along which I used to run errands, the country roads we took….
“Remembrance of Things Past” by Marcel Proust
I’ve wanted to program this incredible, weird, and magical piece for ages. Written in 1976, French composer Henri Dutilleux’s “Ainsi la nuit” (Thus the Night) has become a modern classic. Keen listeners will hear the influence of Debussy and Ravel but Dutilleux preferred to think of Bartók as a more direct progenitor. “Ainsi” begins with an evocation of night music born of works like Bartók’s 4th quartet or the piano suite “Out of Doors” but veers off into a surreal world of immense calm, transcendence, even ecstasy, punctuated with nightmares of pursuit and existential terror. “Ainsi la nuit” is a meditation on the meaning of night.
The quartet has a unique formal structure I’ve never encountered in another work. Played straight through with no break, brief transitional segments (well under a minute) are inserted between the movements. Referred to as “parenthesis,” they contain echoes of previous themes along with incomplete fragments of melodies to come in what Dutilleux called “reverse variation.”
Dutilleux was fascinated with Proust’s concept of memory as expressed in his novel “Remembrances of Things Past.” The classic Proustian moment towards the beginning of the epic seven volume work involves the narrator, a grown man, tasting a madeleine tea cake and the explosion of childhood memories the action triggers. Throughout “Ainsi la nuit” there is a fluid notion of time that, as in each “parenthesis,” alludes to music we have already heard in the piece combined with intimations of music to come.
Dutilleux taught at Tanglewood and worked with violinist Yonah Zur, one of the artists of the festival this summer. In fact, Yonah even has a signed copy of “Ainsi la nuit."
Our Parisian cellist, Sébastien van Kuijk, worked closely with Dutilleux as well:
I met Dutilleux several times and it was always a great privilege. He was an adorable man with a lot of great stories about Prokofiev, Ravel, Florent Schmidt and other great personalities of the 20th century that he met and worked with. I worked the 3 Strophes for solo cello with him and had a wonderful time! I even suggested an alternative ending for the last bars of his piece and he actually agreed!
Dutilleux lived to 97 but his catalog is small. He wrote:
I always doubt my work. I always have regrets. That's why I revise my work so much and, at the same time, I regret not being more prolific. But the reason I am not more prolific is because I doubt my work.
If Bach is God, Beethoven is Man. Where Bach speaks of eternal truths and the mysteries of the universe. Beethoven defines the essence of what it is to be human. I’ll show you in 40 seconds of music.In 2018 we played Beethoven’s string quartet, Opus 130. The fifth movement, titled “Cavatina” by the composer (a cavatina is a type of song) begins and ends with a slow melody that sandwiches six extraordinary measures. Over those measures he writes “beklemmt.”
As we all hunker down indoors, “socially distanced” and grimly tracking the progress of COVID-19 across our communities, I thought some kind of distraction might be welcome. In particular, I’ve been thinking about revisiting favorite works from the last nineteen (!) seasons of NCMF. Of course, any such list of favorites will be highly subjective. One friend recently provided me with his personal ranking system:
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