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Métaboles

About the Work

Quick Look Composer: Henri Dutilleux
Program note originally written for the following performance:
National Symphony Orchestra: Hugh Wolff, conductor/Stephen Hough, piano, performs Saint-Saëns Apr. 24 - 26, 2008
© Richard Freed
Like his illustrious musical compatriots Maurice Ravel and Paul Dukas, Henri Dutilleux early on developed the demanding self-criticism that led him to work painstakingly and unhurriedly in creating and refining each composition—and to reject or discard several scores he never brought to completion. He thus became known for producing about a dozen major works in some six decades, each of them exemplifying his solid craftsmanship and rich imaginativeness. The late cellist and conductor Mstislav Rostropovich identified himself strongly with Dutilleux’s music, and in fact commissioned the orchestral Timbres, espaces, movuement for his first season as music director of the National Symphony Orchestra. That work actually had three premieres here: Rostropovich conducted the first of its three sections in January 1978; he gave the premiere of the complete work the following November, and introduced the revised version in September 1991. Dutilleux’s Correspondances, an orchestral song cycle with texts drawn from letters (one of them one from the famous writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn to Rostropovich himself and his wife, the soprano Galina Vishnevskaya) was performed in Slava’s last appearances with the NSO, in April 2006, with Dawn Upshaw, the soprano who had introduced the work in Berlin three years earlier. Along the way, in April 1986, Slava as cellist performed Tout un monde lontain, the cello concerto Dutilleux composed for him several years earlier. Hugh Wolff, the conductor of the present concerts, presided over those performances of the concerto; Métaboles, which Slava himself conducted in the same concerts, had been performed under his direction in the same 1978 concerts in which he introduced the first part of Timbres, espace, mouvement.

Métaboles, by now the most frequently performed of Dutilleux’s orchestral works, was commissioned and introduced by another American orchestra, in this case the Cleveland Orchestra, on the occasion of its fortieth anniversary. The anniversary season was 1957-58, but Dutilleux did not complete his score until 1964, and the premiere was given in Severance Hall on January 14 of the following year under George Szell. Howard Mitchell conducted the NSO’s first performances of the work in January 1978. The title Dutilleux chose for this work comes from classical rhetoric: it signifies "transition," or "a passing from one thing to another"—as the five contrasting moods reflected in this music pass from one to another. The composer has stated,
This term of rhetoric, adopted with regard to musical forms, unveils the thought of the author of these five pieces to present one or several ideas in a different order or under different aspects, until they undergo, by successive stages, a true change of nature. The process of métabole occurs within each of the pieces, while applying at the same time to the work as a whole. . . . In conceiving this work the composer did not cease to muse upon the mysterious and fascinating world of eternal metamorphosis.

The work is scored for a very large orchestra, with prominent solo episodes for several individual instruments. While Dutilleux specified that the "music is not dictated by any literary programme," he did affix descriptive subtitles to the five pieces, which are linked together, the main theme undergoing (again in the composer’s own words) "successive transformations, as in . . . the domain of variations." The first piece INCANTATORY (Largamente), is in the nature of a rondo, with woodwinds predominating. The second, LINEAR (Lento moderato), "represents the aspects of a Lied . . . sovereignty of the strings, with more and more numerous divisions of the string quartet." The third, OBSESSIVE (Scherzando), "follows strictly the pattern of a passacaglia," with the brass in the forefront. The fourth, TORPID (Andantino), features the "almost exclusive employment of the percussion, with added touches of brass, harp, celesta, clarinet and bass clarinet, and the double basses treated in harmonics." The concluding section, FLAMBOYANT (Presto), is a scherzo exhibiting "dialogues, opposition or blending of these different groups."