Gregorian Echoes: The Influence of Plainchant on the Music of Henri Dutilleux

Gregorian Echoes: The Influence of Plainchant on the Music of Henri Dutilleux

            “For me, the musical fact approaches a form of ceremony which is very close to being sacred, with equal parts mystery and magic, and – as it is in love and religion – we should approach it with a certain gravitas. If this is true for those who receive music, all the more reason that it is also true for those who create it.”[1] 


            For Henri Dutilleux, music carries a great weight. One hears the quote that I just read and is reminded of the Chinese proverb “If what one has to say is not better than silence, then one should keep silent.” Dutilleux felt this way about all music, you can tell by the way he speaks about other composers, but he felt this weight most heavily when it came to his own music. He destroyed or disowned most of the music written in the first 30 years of his life. Why? He says different things at different points: “they are not me” or “they are not good enough,” just to give two examples. It is not impossible that all of the answers are correct. I would suggest that his conception of this weight and of the sacred are intimately tied up with his own identity as a composer: some work is not his because it does not communicate (or reflect) his sense of mystery or his expertise. I will return to this discussion at the end of my paper, but I have started with this in order that you might understand better that Dutilleux’s sense of the sacred is not surface-level. It pervades not only his music, but also the act of composing itself.


            The first section of this paper will present my hard evidence supporting my view that Gregorian chant has influenced Dutilleux on a profound level. There are three pieces of evidence. The first is quite direct. In an obituary for colleague Maurice Ohana, he specifically states that their love for plainchant was something which brought them together. The second piece of evidence is important, but primarily as chronology. He grew up in a France whose devotion to chant had been renewed by the work done by the monks at the Abbey of Solesmes and by the time Dutilleux was going to school, both for music and in general, the findings of Solesmes were being taught. The final piece comes from an interview where Dutilleux mentions that he read a Course on Musical Composition[2] by Vincent D’Indy, one of the founders of the Schola Cantorum, and a well-known advocate for Gregorian chant. Then, in the next section, I will show three primary ways in which I believe chant influenced his music. The first is the way he develops motives, often called the principle of “progressive growth,”[3] as well as the concept of memory in his works. I will look at Ainsi la nuit for this point. The second is his love of monophony, or music whose primary material is expressed by a single theme played by a large portion of the ensemble present. This is especially the case in the fifth movement of Mystère de l’Instant, titled “Litanies.” The final point is a little less clear-cut but also less surface-level. Though the previous two techniques are used in this last case, they are incorporated into something more complex and deeper, feeding off of what I would like to call the “spirit” of chant. For this point I will look at the second movement of Dutilleux’s Symphony No. 2. I will then close my paper with some final remarks about Dutilleux and the sacred. 


Three Pieces of Evidence

            In a memorial to fellow composer Maurice Ohana written in 1994, Dutilleux remarked that “The unusual structure of his music interested me from the time of his earliest works. In the 1950s…our exchanges of ideas were fruitful, despite some minor differences of opinion… We shared a common admiration for music of the Medieval period, Gregorian chant and for the great harmonists and colourists Chopin, Debussy and a few others.”[4] These two men were of the same generation, what I will call “2nd generation Solesmes” so the point of agreement is not at all surprising. In the late 19th and the early 20th centuries, Dom Moquereau and the monks at the Abbey of Solesmes in France attempted, and heartily succeeded in reviving the tradition of Gregorian chant by studying Medieval manuscripts from all over Europe, in order to return to an “authentic” performance of that repertoire. They succeeded so profoundly in their mission that they have been, for over 100 years, the official “custodians” of chant in the Roman Catholic Church, and, quite frankly, have a monopoly on the editing and performance of plainchant throughout the world. More important for this study, their work succeeded in reviving the study and performance of chant especially in France and resulted in Moquereau and the Solesmes methods of singing chant being taught in schools, new schools, such as the Schola Cantorum in Paris, were opened for its study, and composers, such as Marcel Dupré and Charles Tournemire, were inspired by the unearthing of old chant melodies. Dupré and Tournemire were of what I would like to call the “1st generation Solesmes,” in that they were alive while the monks at Solesmes were still unearthing these liturgical treasures and only just beginning to proliferate them. As the work of Solesmes and the “Moquereau method” became more standardized, it became much more common for chant to be studied in secular conservatories and music schools, not just in religious institutions such as the Schola Cantorum. The French composer and pedagogue Vincent d’Indy, one of the founders of the Schola Cantorum, was one of the most important figures in arguing for the place of chant in all areas of music education. D’Indy was a very important figure in turn-of-the-century Parisian musical pedagogy, to the point that while the conservatories were closed during the Occupation of Paris in World War II, Dutilleux remembers reading his Course of Composition, which is unreserved in its emphasis on the importance of Gregorian chant in the compositional life. D’Indy remarks “The eminently expressive character of Gregorian chant—of all song the most admirable for its naïve, sincere, and profoundly human emotion—has been contested and even denied. However, it is without question that the creators of [chant] were preoccupied with translating musically the sentiments expressed by the sacred texts in a general fashion, if not in the specific detail of each word.”[5] He even goes as far as to call Gregorian chant the “father of our dramatic music.”[6] Though one gets the sense from reading the Course that D’Indy’s love for chant and medieval music is one of many idiosyncrasies of that author, it is interesting to note that when Dutilleux spoke about the Course in interviews, one of the things he remembers most fondly about it is D’Indy’s treatment of medieval music. 


How Chant Influenced Dutilleux: The Principle of “Progressive Growth”

            When one looks at the structural components of plainchant, one does not find the kind of theme and transformation dichotomy that is present in much of later music.[7] Chants aren’t really made up of “themes” or “melodies” but are more like “pastiches” of motives which repeat throughout and unify the chant. Often, these motives are not repeated identically. They are repeated so that their contour can be felt and this helps engage the memory of the singer and offers variation in what would otherwise be a rather strict style of composition. Memory for the monks who wrote and sang chant is important on a practical level because very little of this music was written down before it was sung and shared with others. Of course pure duplication of motives is simpler to teach to others, but as composers became more and more daring with their writing, they found ways to continue to engage the memory while not blindly restating phrases.  It is also the case that these repetitions frequently occur in unexpected places, almost like the sudden flashbacks in one of Proust’s novels. The most important thing here, though, is that these chants are both forward-moving, unified wholes, and a collection of small “cells” of music. For the Proustian Dutilleux, these small motivic unifiers are opportunities for a more complex expression and experience of memory, something closer to the way in which we actually experience the world. In a work such as Ainsi la nuit, these motives are essential not only to the phenomenological experience of understanding the piece as a unified whole, but are, in fact, the actual binding-agents for the piece as well. 


            Speaking on the concept of “progressive growth,” Dutilleux argued that “[An] element undergoes a succession of changes, of metamorphoses, until, after a certain number of them, as with insects, you find that there’s an essential change in its nature: the original idea is almost unrecognizable.”[8] One of the ways that he utilizes this concept in Ainsi la nuit is by embedding almost exact replicas of a motive in a longer stream of music.[9] Ainsi la nuit was written between 1973 and 1976 and is made up of seven continuous movements with four “parentheses” in between, which both recall previously heard material and anticipate what is to come. Despite the sensuousness of the sound, the piece is not made up of themes or melodies. The music is more motivic than it is thematic, which, as I have noted above, is also the case for most plainchant. Pierrette Mari, in her remarkable study of Dutilleux’s music, has located five main motives which rotate and unify the work, and all of these motives are treated in almost the exact same way. For instance, the first motive, or the first hint at a motive, is played by the viola starting at rehearsal mark 5 of the first movement, “Nocturne,” and then is immediately varied. It’s basic contour is made up of an alternation of a whole step, a major third, a major third and another whole step. Dutilleux then takes these intervals and, keeping the same rhythmic and general melodic profile, changes it ever so slightly with each successive repetition. One gets the sense that, though the pitches which are played have been selected very consciously, the feel or contour of the motif is the more important aspect. I would argue, even, that, in a very real sense, the contour is the motive. In Dutilleux’s music, are there really definitive statements of themes or motives? Most often not. But, when one hears a motive that has returned after developing over the course of a work, it is often the contour that triggers the memory of its first appearance, though he does utilize other “environmental factors” to aide in this process, such as the employment of a certain range or of specific instruments for the statements. The fact that the motive is changed ever so slightly on each repetition engages the memory on a much deeper level than pure duplication and makes for a much more complex musical structure. Furthermore, the embedding of a motive inside of a larger phrase of music is precisely the way that “motives” in chant are developed. Something laid out in the incipit of a work will reappear at the most unexpected of times, and, in reality, it is only after the work has completed that one realizes what the “motives” or unifying-agents really were and how they impacted one’s experience of the work. 


            Ainsi la nuit is not the only work which is structured in this way, with small motives altered and scattered throughout. This is also the case for L’arbre des songes and also Métaboles.


How Chant Influenced Dutilleux: Love for Monophony

            As the medievals explored the possibilities of polyphonic vocal music, they utilized techniques such as strict parallel motion, often on the octave or fourth. The addition of another voice in rhythmic unison with the principal voice and with a consonant or similar pitch profile was a very simple way for early composers and choir directors to enrich the musical sound while not having to struggle with the problems of notating such music. Obviously for a modern composer such as Dutilleux, the same problems of notation and performance were no longer present. What does he achieve then, by writing music such as what we see in the fifth movement of his Mystère de l’instant, titled “Litanies?” I would like to argue that he is invoking a particular type of sound, one that is rich in spiritual and Gregorian associations, as is also implied by the name of the movement. [play the first 30” or so].


            The work, premiered in 1989, is written for 24 strings, cimbalom, and percussion, and in this movement the strings act as one voice for most of the movement’s duration. The section, from a presentational point of view, is in three parts, with the opening section, which you just heard, being presented almost completely monophonically, with all strings playing at unison, with embellishments from the cimbalom. The sound is remarkable and varied even though the strings are at unison because the violins are in the lower part of their range, the violas are in the middle of their range, and the cellos are playing rather high. The sound is quite difficult to achieve with precision, as these ceaseless unisons present some tuning challenges. But the sound is choral, Gregorian in nature. The opening is an incantation, an incipit for the movement, and then, in the second part, the material is spread around a bit, and the cellos take the theme in unison while the other strings play chords in tremolo, almost as an atmospheric touch. While the tremolos alter the harmonic profile of the piece, they only add to the mysterious, spiritual quality that had been conjured up by the opening. The work ends with a return to the homophonic string playing, but this time the embellishments are in a solo viola as well as in the cimbalom.


            This is just one example of Dutilleux’s love of monophony, but it is the clearest instance of the way he uses it due to the compact nature of the instrumentation and of the material used in this short movement. While it is uncommon that he would present a theme across all of the instruments available (especially in his larger works), there is still space for monophony, such as, for instance, at the beginning of the third movement of The Shadows of Time, “Mémoire des ombres,” when all of the woodwinds present a theme at the unison for over twenty measures. Almost every time he uses monophony, it is to conjure up a spiritual or mystical sensation, and this movement in The Shadows of Time is quite moving and haunting, because of it. [play about 40” of music]


How Chant Influenced Dutilleux: The “Spirit of Chant” 

            The previous two examples represent, I think, obvious use, in Dutilleux’s own way of course, methods and materials reminiscent of chant. With my last example, I would like to show that Dutilleux’s use of chant is often much more complex than merely the use of methods or materials. I believe that what I will call a “spirit of chant” permeates much of his music. Obviously, this spirit incorporates many of the things we have been talking about, but the uses of these ideas are much more deep-seated and subtle and reflect more of Dutilleux’s view of the sacred in music than anything else, and he uses the techniques mentioned above that were inspired by chant to communicate that spirituality.


            Dutilleux’s Symphony No. 2 is a study in thematic progression. The composer calls its structure “cyclic,” with each movement of this triptych built on themes which are present throughout the whole work. Right from the start, the use of thematic cells in a cyclical fashion is reminiscent of our first point on the engagement of memory. Dutilleux even says in the Mari monograph that the themes do not return exactly the same, but that “one feels their presence.”[10] The second movement of the symphony opens with the initial thematic statement of the first movement, while also prefiguring the main theme of the final movement. The theme is presented and then transformed into the main theme of the movement and is repeated relentlessly throughout the movement, most often monophonically. One cannot avoid the incantatory nature of the theme in its sinuousness as it constantly moves forward, weaving, couched in its sensuously mysterious harmonies. Mari is speaking about the nature of the sound when she says that it is a “light which rises like the dawn on a cloudy sky.”[11] Let us listen to some of this movement. This “spirit” of chant is not something that manifests itself most clearly on the page. We can note the cyclical presentation of motives, the monophonic nature of the themes, or the movement’s dependence on pedal points but those are just three indications of a truly spiritual intensity which permeates this whole movement, and even this whole work. I would like to play for you the music which leads into the climax from this movement. 



            Dutilleux did not take the act of composition lightly. Its weight on him was a spiritual, religious weight and he carried it with him his entire life. In fact, the spiritual powers of music were, perhaps, the most important to Dutilleux, and impacted the way he thought about his own music the most profoundly. Though he was raised Catholic, the spirituality which his music communicates is intensely personal, yet it is successful in connecting with us, its listeners. This is the case because though it is a personal vision, it does not begin from ground zero. It walks on a path paved over hundreds and thousands of years by composers and musicians alike, and I have outlined three ways in which Dutilleux looks to Gregorian chant to chart his way forward. I believe that Dutilleux looked to chant because he saw in it the potency he desired for his own music, and, as we have seen, he was successful not only in locating the ways in which chant was effective, but also in making them his own.



[1] Pierrette Mari, Henri Dutilleux (Paris: Zurfluh, 2004), 113.


[2] Vincent D’Indy, Course in Musical Composition, Vol. 1, trans. and ed. Gail Hilson Woldu (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 2010). 


[3] A term coined by the musicologist and composer Francis Bayer, a former pupil of Dutilleux.


[4] Henri Dutilleux, “Maurice Ohana, le musicien du soleil,” Le Monde de la Musique, no. 2 (1994): 18. 


[5] D’Indy 104. 


[6] Ibid., 105. 


[7] Those sorts of treatments of material don’t really arise until the 13th century and the Notre Dame School of polyphony. 


[8] Roger Nichols and Henri Dutilleux, “Progressive Growth: Henri Dutilleux in Conversation with Roger Nichols,” The Musical Times 135, no. 1812 (February 1994): 89. 


[9] Kenneth Hesketh, “The Backbone of Night: Mechanisms of Evolution in Henri Dutilleux’s Ainsi la nuit,” Contemporary Music Review 29, no. 5 (October 2010): 464. 


[10] Mari, 130. 


[11] Ibid., 133.