Piano Sonata (Dutilleux)

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Piano Sonata
by Henri Dutilleux
DedicationGeneviève Joy
Performed30 April 1948 (1948-04-30)

Henri Dutilleux's Piano Sonata (1947–1948) was his only piano sonata. It is dedicated to and premiered by his wife Geneviève Joy on 30 April 1948.[1][2] The Piano Sonata has since become one of the most acclaimed post-World War II works in the genre[1][3] and has been championed by major pianists such as John Ogdon, Robert Levin, John Chen and Claire-Marie Le Guay.

Although Dutilleux had been active as a composer for ten years when he wrote his piano sonata, he viewed it as his Opus 1, the first work that he considered up to his mature standards.[2][4] Debussy, Ravel,[4] Bartók and Prokofiev[5] have been cited as influences on the piece although critics have also stressed that its language is original and distinctive,[4][6] a personal synthesis of French Impressionism and Soviet music.[7]


The work has three movements.[1]

  1. Allegro con moto
  2. Lied
  3. Choral et variations

The piano sonata represented an opportunity for Dutilleux to experiment with an ambitious, large-scale project, something that his previous commissioned works did not permit. In his own words: "I wanted to move gradually towards working in larger forms, and not to be satisfied with short pieces – to get away, if you like, from a way of writing that was 'typically French' ".[8] The piece combines two concerns typical of Dutilleux's mature works: formal rigour and harmonic research.[2] Its themes are ambiguous, never completely modal or tonal.[9]

The first movement, Allegro con moto, starts in 2
but often changes meter. It is bi-thematic and classical in structure, with an ample first theme while the second one derives from the former.[1][6] From the very first bars, it displays F major-minor ambiguity. Tritones are also featured prominently, as well as extremes of register which give the piece a symphonic character.[9]

The Lied is the shortest movement. In ternary A–B–A form, it is also sparser and more pensive than the other two.[6] Its basic tonality is D major although some degree of modal-tonal ambiguity is again noticeable. It begins in 4
with some meter changes later on.[9]

The last movement starts with an imposing Choral in 3
that suggests a four-voice polyphony. It is characterized by carillon-like sonorities that are created by the overlapping of low and high sustained notes.[9] It is followed by 4 variations (Vivace – Un poco più vivo – Calmo – Prestissimo). Variation II features an early example of "fan-shaped phrases", a device Dutilleux would use frequently in his later works.[9] The movement concludes with a varied recapitulation of the Choral. The variations are thus structured in a mini-sonata form, creating a "sonata within a sonata".[1][6] Throughout the movement, several passages have a toccata-like character.[6][9]

The work has been described as "a brilliant, multi-layered piece with echoes of Bartók and Prokofiev"[5] as well as a "sonata that Debussy might have written... sensuous and classical".[4]

Selected discography[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e "Henri Dutilleux: Sonate pour piano" (work details) (in French and English). IRCAM.
  2. ^ a b c Fantapié, Henri-Claude (2014), Henri Dutilleux Edition, [6-CD Set], (Deutsche Grammophon), liner notes.
  3. ^ " Alternating Currents – About", Tall Poppies TP212 (2010), via Presto Music, "... the Dutilleux Sonata is one of the best piano works from the 20th century..."
  4. ^ a b c d Review by Gary Higginson, musicweb-international.com, 10 October 2010
  5. ^ a b Musicweb-international.com, Tony Haywood CD review
  6. ^ a b c d e Whitehouse, Richard, Henri Dutilleux – Complete Solo Piano Music, Naxos Records, liner notes.
  7. ^ Levin, Robert, Henri Dutilleux: D'ombre et de silence, ECM Records, liner notes.
  8. ^ Henri Dutilleux; Claude Glayman (2003). Henri Dutilleux: Music—mystery and Memory : Conversations with Claude Glayman. Ashgate Publishing. p. 29. ISBN 978-0-7546-0899-8.
  9. ^ a b c d e f The Solo Piano Works of Henri Dutilleux: A Stylistics Analysis, Rosemarie Suniga, University of South Carolina, 2011. [1]