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Composed: 1970
Length: c. 25 minutes
Orchestration: piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 3 horns, 2 trumpets, 2 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (antique cymbals, bass drum, bongos, cymbals, glockenspiel, gongs, marimba, snare drum, tom-toms, triangle, xylophone), harp, celesta, strings, and solo cello
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: April 27, 1995, Esa-Pekka Salonen conducting, with soloist Lynn Harrell

Dutilleux’s concerto for cello and orchestra, “Tout un monde lointain…”, was written in 1970 for the Russian cellist and conductor Mstislav Rostropovich. The work is conceived as an intense meditation on the poet Charles Baudelaire. Each of the five movements begins with a fragment of verse from the poet, but these are meant simply to suggest a character or mood for the music, not to supply a programmatic narrative.

The first movement, entitled “Enigma,” responds to Baudelaire’s phrase: “And in this strange and symbolic nature….” The music begins with an extended, mainly quiet cello recitative. Throughout this recitative the cello melody exhibits a shape-shifting quality. Sometimes it proceeds in an intensely sustained and nearly scalar manner; at other times the intensity is released into bursts of plucked activity.

One of the most remarkable aspects of the movement is the unhurried and unostentatious way in which the other instruments are brought into play. As the cello grows more agitated, it begins to interact with a wider variety of discrete orchestral timbres. In some places in this movement – particularly in the loud tutti sections – the listener cannot fail to detect the French penchant for luxuriant sonority, a feature that clearly links Dutilleux to such composers as Debussy and Ravel, Messiaen and Boulez. The last half or more of the movement features an aggressively pulsed and pointillistically textured music.

The music of the second movement relies mainly on a plaintive cello melody placed most often in the high register. The melody itself illustrates Dutilleux’s fondness for a highly flexible use of modality, in which vestiges of familiar scales appear from time to time within a generally atonal context. Throughout much of the movement, massive string chords haunt the melody, sometimes overtaking it. Elsewhere, other string instruments treat the cello song in mirror imitation, thus responding literally to Baudelaire’s vision of his soul seeing “itself upside-down.”

The third movement takes a seascape as its point of departure. Baudelaire’s line, “You contain, ebony sea, a dazzling dream of sails, of rowers, of flames and masts…”, inspires a frenetic ebb and flow of musical gestures. At the outset the cello uses aggressively attacked double stops to launch a series of lines that rush up to points of temporary stability, then begin all over again. In the middle of the movement, Dutilleux creates a dancing, Debussy-like mosaic of sonorities, including angular scales that tumble up and down, woodblock motives, and pulsed chords that accelerate rapidly.

The fourth movement returns to a slow, meditative mood. Again the music is dominated by a cello melody in the high register. Beginning in an open texture over trembling percussion figures in the bass, it gradually accumulates several layers of sound, while the harp plucks out a steady beat. Dutilleux’s counterpoint is wonderfully subtle, reminiscent of Debussy in the way that linear relationships emerge from nowhere, then dissolve or mutate into other patterns just as the listener becomes aware of them.

The fifth movement opens with a loud, raucous explosion. The cello now is agitated and motoric, giving only a few glimpses of its former lyricism. In certain passages, one hears a cubist thinking similar to that encountered in Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, with distinct blocks of material colliding one against another. In other places one hears the kind of stratified, gamelan-inspired textures from Debussy’s Faun. In one place in particular, a slow-moving melody played by widely separated wind instruments sounds against rapidly moving plucked strings in the bass. The way in which these textures evolve into related but nevertheless new patterns is one of the chief pleasures of this movement.

Steven Johnson holds a Ph.D. from UCLA and is on the faculty at Brigham Young University.