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Composed: 1959-1964
Length: c. 18 minutes
Orchestration: 2 flutes (both = piccolo), 3 oboes and English horn, 2 clarinets in B-flat, E-flat clarinet, bass clarinet, 3 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 4 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (temple blocks, snare drum, tom-toms, bass drum, small suspended cymbal, Chinese cymbal, tam-tams, crash cymbals, triangle, cowbell, xylophone, glockenspiel), celesta, harp, and strings
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: October 23, 1998, Sylvain Cambreling conducting

Henri Dutilleux is an unwaveringly self-critical composer. An obsessive perfectionist, his painstaking attention to detail gives each work he publishes a jewel-like precision that is both economical and richly suggestive. Even the visual craftsmanship of his scores, written in a distinctive calligraphy, points to the composer’s concern for clarity and order. Dutilleux has continued to create into his 90s, but his catalogue of works remains modest. This is, after all, an artist who is reputed to toss out reams of material in the process of shaping each facet of a composition. Down to the exact interplay of timbres, he expends the infinite care you might associate with a painter from the Flemish Renaissance.

Several of Dutilleux’s most significant pieces began as commissions from American orchestras. The Boston Symphony premiered the second and last of his symphonies in 1959 – the Symphony No. 2, also known as “Le Double” because of its division of the musicians into two ensembles. Métaboles was his next major project, written for the Cleveland Orchestra and George Szell over a span of five years. It represents the composer’s search for a new kind of internal logic and musical form. He had come to see the “problem of musical forms” as a central issue: how to develop forms that evolve according to the circumstances of a particular piece rather than according to conventional models. (An aesthetic loner by nature, Dutilleux had little use for the formalized principles of the postwar avant-garde – which he thought of as a substitute convention – and has never fit into any larger movement.)

An affinity for philosophy and literature (especially Baudelaire and Proust) as well as such artists as van Gogh is central to Dutilleux’s aesthetic makeup and has stimulated ideas for several of his most successful compositions. But in Métaboles, Dutilleux turns to the evolutionary process of nature itself for his creative model. Unlike Romanticism’s goal-directed imagery of organic development from seed to complexity, Dutilleux focuses on the mysterious turning-points – what he calls the “interior evolution” – through which an entity subtly transforms into something so unpredictably different that it seems utterly new but is in reality a metamorphosis.

Métaboles thus unfolds as a unified larger structure made of five interconnected sections (Dutilleux gives each of these an evocative title). Melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic parameters define the primary motivic material within a section (for example, the pungent series of chords beginning the piece). This becomes “deformed” and elaborated by the composer’s musical metabolism to the point that it assumes the shape of a new motif, which then takes center stage in each ensuing section until it, in turn, triggers new material. Dutilleux moreover alters the orchestral textures so that each of the first four sections foregrounds a different instrumental group in a way that is most appropriate to the material being transformed. (The intricately crafted interplay of timbres makes Métaboles, on one level, a highly condensed orchestral concerto.)

With its predominantly woodwind articulation, the opening section (“Incantatory”) echoes the kind of archaic awakening of The Rite of Spring. The strings foreshadow their central role in the otherworldly second section (“Linear”), where they become increasingly divided, while the brass, against stealthy strings, enact aggressively clipped transformations in the third (“Obsessive”). Dutilleux uses the colorful array of percussion in tandem with clarinets for the fourth section (“Torpid”). Its provocative shards of resonance clear the way for the multi-layered synthesis of the final section (“Flamboyant”), which gathers together the energy of the full ensemble.

Thomas May writes and lectures about music and theater and is a frequent contributor to Los Angeles Philharmonic programs.