SHADOWS (Claude Ledoux)
D’ombre et de silence, Surgir … Titles that bear witness to these relations of space and movement that leave multiple traces on the canvas of our hearing. Two sound universes impregnated with fugitive resonances, with a background torn by the sudden, astonished appearances that emerge like foam, with no other future but to be die out in the murmur of the world. To the point of recollecting Debussy’s adage:
‘Listen to no one’s advice except that of the wind in the trees. That can recount the whole history of mankind.’ Here the winds will be star-studded, underground, squalls or gentle stirrings. At times tragic.
When Elodie Vignon suggested I write a new work to establish a possible dialogue with the work of Dutilleux, I was already committed to her cause. The crystalline agility of her fingers and her rare sensibility regarding the exquisite sounds of French music offered me the guarantee of an irreproachable attention to my music, largely rooted in a southern tradition. There remained the fascinating issue of a confrontation with two piano masterpieces of the twentieth century.
As for Dutilleux, I had discovered him during my adolescence. At the time I was intoxicated by Poe and Baudelaire.
The enthralled listening to ‘a whole far-away world’ suddenly linked music to the poetry conducive to the ‘shaded’ imaginations of admired authors. I plunged into a space of previously unheard sounds between Ravelian sparkle, dying fireworks and the muted resonances of orchestral pieces by Berg and Schoenberg (great admirers of Debussy and Dukas, should we need reminding). Time passing, I realize today how much I share this singular positioning with this great French composer: in the middle of a patiently traced gap between, on the one hand, the intensified knowledge and the listening which bears history and, on the other hand, what the most current experimentation teaches us. An invigorating ‘between’,1 fed in the shadow of our multiple experiences, far from any eclecticism.
From shadow to mystery, a word much appreciated by Dutilleux, there is but a single step. Mystery as a principle of representation, like this medieval form, bearing a spiritual dimension so necessary to this period that devours shortlived moments. At the risk of losing all raison d’être, particularly in this era of digital revolution. As the philosopher Byung-Chul Han reminds us,2 let us not get caught up in an overrated, immediate transparency that is just as easily disposable. Let us make room for ambiguity and the enigma which restore our humanity and enable us to act in the listening. A mystery which could not exist without this shadow zone, a disturbing strangeness which feeds us, weaves us together with the world that surrounds us.
Dutilleux’s Piano Sonata could be its forecourt. Composed between 1946 and 1948, in the immediate post-war period, it bears the stigmata of this tragedy. Considered the composer’s Opus 1, it bears the trace of the numerous lines of force that traverse it. In the first movement, Allegro con moto, Ravel and Debussy are never far away. That is noticeable straightaway in the arrangement of the writing, typical of the author of the Sonatine: the extreme voices possess an exquisite melodic form sustained by basses which inscribe it in their resonances, while the inner voices suffuse delicious harmonies at greater or lower speeds. Or, in twirling phrases in the spirit of Toccata, passing incessantly from one hand to the other, inscribing implicitly the memory of Pour le Piano, or Le Tombeau de Couperin – witness to another war – as well as their barely concealed allusion to the musics of the eighteenth century. As for the central section of this sonata form, instead of developing the two initial themes, it metamorphoses them to carry them in a context where the resonance exalts them and pushes us to listen to them with a new ear. This principle of metamorphosis will for that matter be found throughout the second movement, Lied. A plaintive echo of the global conflict which had just ended. The painful shadow of melodic forms folds back on itself, opens out on itself, feeds on wider and wider spaces. The counterpoints at times aspire to be harsh and the mirrors of small fretful melodic forms lead back to the Viennese techniques of developing variation. The references to Bartok, Berg, sometimes Webern (Dutilleux admired his Variations Op. 27) jostle with modal universes, at times even bringing to mind Jolivet or Messiaen.
As for the concluding Choral et Variations, it resumes the techniques used previously. Nevertheless, the Choral shares no similarities with a classical theme but leads back above all to the interest Dutilleux had for the northern bells of his childhood. The magical sounds of the bells transposed into the world of the piano, evolving along renewed resonant spaces. The permanent metamorphoses of this singular material project the listener not only into the future of this last movement, but also into the composer’s singular work to come. The three Preludes are its direct heirs.
Written in different periods and published as a collection in 1994, these three pieces bear witness to the composer’s evolution and his desire to distance himself from ‘entertaining charm’ in the French style. The syntax is transformed within it, avoids the linearity of the traditional musical phrase. The immobile movements, conducive to an introspective listening to the material, mix with the incantations as well as with the elusive arabesques, their movement in perpetual transformation. Discontinuities, flashes and sudden appearances of figures rendered continuous thanks to a continual metabolic process.
D’ombre et de silence, dedicated to Arthur Rubinstein, went through several states. From two separate pieces (D’ombre and De silence), written in 1973, Dutilleux would at a later stage draw two new versions: the above prelude as well as Sur un même accord (1977), dedicated to Claude Helffer. These two pieces would benefit from research into sound, its ‘aura’, its projection within space as well as the movements of symmetry in the organization of pitches, procedures already present in the Sonata. This preoccupation would for that matter be intensified in Le jeu des contraires, the longest of the three preludes. It was composed at the instigation of Eugene Istomin to serve as work ordered for the 1988 William Kappell competition. Hence the presence of a certain virtuosity in the fingers. Apart from the systematic use of mirrors throughout the piece – the most characteristic being the response in contrary movement of the left hand in relation to the right hand – Dutilleux proves to be singular by discovering within it a language whose spaces of resonance (the legacy of Debussy) have been galvanized by a meticulous arrangement of variations of small musical cells (the legacy of Schoenberg), the whole being inscribed under the sign of permanent metamorphosis, the metabole. For that matter, the latter makes possible premonitions, distant memories and other memory games which make themselves more and more subtle. Dutilleux confides to us that these mechanisms of memory echo the thinking of Proust, elegantly distilled throughout the length of a score which does not hesitate to bring forth the virtuoso spirit of the Toccata at its centre.
The eternal return of this notion of ‘suddenly appearing’ (surgir). And to go back to Debussy by means of Jankélévitch, through these lines devoted to the surgissement : ‘[…] a music which is perpetually beginning in which there is no continuity but the renewal itself. The world is a bright dot in the infinite, and the Prelude is like a miniature of the world.
If the Prelude, a disappearing appearance, is a kind of moment, a lightning bolt in the night, is not life in its turn a great Moment? A marvellous transition text between Dutilleux and my music.