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Correspondances (2003)

About the Work

Quick Look Composer: Henri Dutilleux
Program note originally written for the following performance:
National Symphony Orchestra: Mstislav Rostropovich, conductor/Dawn Upshaw, soprano Apr. 27 - 29, 2006
© Richard Freed/Henri Dutilleux
This work for soprano and orchestra, composed in 2003 under a commission from the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, was given its premiere by that orchestra on September 5 of that year, with Dawn Upshaw as soloist and Sir Simon Rattle conducting. Miss Upshaw is again the soloist in the present performances under Mstislav Rostropovich, which introduce the work into the repertory of the National Symphony Orchestra.

In addition to the solo soprano, the score, dedicated to Dawn Upshaw and Sir Simon Rattle, calls for piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, 3 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, snare drum, bass drum, 2 suspended cymbals, tam-tam, 3 bongos, 3 tom toms, accordion, marimba, vibraphone, celesta, harp, and strings. Duration, 22 minutes.

During his tenure as music director of the National Symphony Orchestra, Mstislav Rostropovich gave several performances as soloist in "Tout un monde lointain . . . ," the cello concerto Dutilleux composed for him in 1970, and also presided as conductor over performances of Métaboles and of no fewer than three world premieres of a work he commissioned for his first season on the NSO podium, Timbres, espace, movement, ou La Nuit étoilée. That one work had three premieres because its first part alone was introduced in January 1978, the premiere of the complete work was given in November 1978, and the premiere of the revised version was given in September 1991. Mr. Rostropovich has established close ties with Dutilleux over the years, and it is entirely fitting that it is he who, together with the singer for whom Correspondances was composed, now brings this recent work to the NSO and its audience.

Several of Dutilleux's major works, among them both of the earlier ones composed for Mr. Rostropovich, have been inspired by visual images or written words. Vincent van Gogh's famous painting known to us as Starry Night provided a point of departure for Timbres, espace, movement; the poem "La Chevelure," from Charles Baudelaire's cycle Fleurs du mal, was the inspiration for the cello concerto. But in neither of those works was Dutilleux writing "program music" or attempting a direct match to the respective visual or literary work that had motivated him. The present work, however, does undertake to do just that, for it is a song cycle, settings of letters and poems by four well known figures, among these a letter from the aforementioned Van Gogh to his brother Théo and one from the writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn to Mr. Rostropovich himself and his wife, the celebrated soprano Galina Vishnevskaya. The composer has given us a comprehensive background for the work in his own words.

The initial idea for the work was a matter of choosing some letters from various authors that might engender different forms of lyric expression conveyed by the soprano voice and the large symphony orchestra.

Brief orchestral interludes are sometimes used as bridges between these letters; the first of these is preceded by a poem by the Indian writer Pirthwindra Mukherjee, "The Cosmic Dance," a poem which may itself be regarded as a kind of ode, or message, to Shiva . . .

The next sung episode is based on the main passages of a letter from Solzhenitsyn to Mstislav and Galina Rostropovich (dated February 9, 1984), describing his trials, his time in the labor camps ten years before, experiences he overcame thanks to the heroic support of his friends Slava and Galina, and to his own faith as well.

It is from the letters of Vincent van Gogh to his brother Théo that I have drawn out such excerpts as "I have a great need of religion, so I go out at night to point the stars." This episode is preceded by the evocation of a very short poem by Rainer Maria Rilke called "Gong."

While these texts are quite different from one another in their form and their content, they nonetheless have in common an inclination toward the mystical thinking on the part of the respective authors. Together with the idea of the Cosmos, this is what struck the composer as a unifying element.

The work's overall title, Correspondances, beyond the different meanings that might be assigned to this word, refers to Baudelaire's famous poem of the same title, and to the sensations he invoked. On the other hand, the "baudelairian" idea that in our world the divine inevitably finds its image in a devilish world, seems reflected in Van Gogh's mind when he writes from Arles to his brother that "next to the sun (the good Lord), there is unfortunately the Devil Mistral."

Each of these episodes is given its own distinctive orchestration, with this or that family or instruments to the fore. Thus the evocative images and colors in Vincent van Gogh's letter will find their echo mainly in the timbres of the woodwinds and in the brass as well, while Solzhenitsyn's letter to Slava and Galina is backed chiefly by the strings--particularly by the cellos, often in a cello quartet. In "The Cosmic Dance," however, the singer is surrounded by the entire orchestra, and, by way of further contrast, the third section, "Gong," is a sort of interlude involving barely half the orchestra.

Finally, I would like to remark that at the very end of Solzhenitsyn's letter, as a sort of watermark, as in a mist, is a quotation from Boris Godunov, in which we hear the Simpleton's expression of grief over the misfortunes of the people of Russia.

In the same way, in the center of the section devoted to Van Gogh's letter, the composer uses the main motif of his own score Timbres, espace, mouvement, ou La Nuit étoilée, written in 1978 under the influence of the famous painting Starry Night.