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Composed: 1983-1985
Length: c. 25 minutes
Orchestration: piccolo, 2 flutes, 3 oboes (3rd = oboe d’amore), 2 clarinets, E-flat clarinet, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 3 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bongos, crotales, tubular bells, glockenspiel, suspended cymbals, vibraphone, snare drum, tam-tams, and tom-toms), harp, piano (= celesta), cimbalom, strings, and solo violin
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performances

For a composer who insists that he does not write program music, Dutilleux comes up with the most evocative titles. He is often inspired by art and literature, but in the case of L’arbre des songes, the violin concerto he wrote for Isaac Stern, the title is a metaphor for the organic form and thematic development of the piece.

“All in all, the piece grows somewhat like a tree, for the constant multiplication and renewal of its branches is the lyrical essence of the tree,” Dutilleux writes. “This symbolic image, as well as the notion of a seasonal cycle, inspired my choice of L’arbre des songes as the title of the piece.”

The work has four main movements that are similar to those of a standard symphony: a big, serious opening; a slow meditation; a lively contrast; and a vigorous culmination. But Dutilleux feels that bringing each of these movements to a close and then pausing before starting the next one would break the spell of the music, so he links them with interludes, expanding a structural technique he employed in earlier pieces, including “Tout un monde lointain…”, the cello concerto he completed in 1970 for Mstislav Rostropovich.

“As to form,” Dutilleux says, “the present work has similarities with its predecessors; its four structural parts are linked to one another by three orchestral interludes of differing characters and styles: the first is pointillist, the next monodic, and the last has a very still beginning. As for the solo part, it is not at all passive during these stretches; at the end of the second interlude it grafts itself onto the orchestra in parallel. Indeed, this parallel role becomes very obvious in the central episode of the work (the slow movement), where the oboe d’amore and the solo violin reflect one another in a play of mirror images. The same applies to the cimbalom’s entries, which are more discrete, yet important for the touches of color they lend to the work.”

Although Dutilleux decided that he could not write the flashy displays of technique he found in the standard virtuoso violin music he studied while preparing L’arbre des songes, what he did compose for the soloist reminds us that there is a virtuosity of the spirit as well as of the hands and fingers. (“Even with a close study of Paganini’s caprices, Ysaÿe’s sonatas, and many of Enesco’s scores, I personally still felt incapable of writing a bravura piece.”) The concerto is not without severe challenges, of course, but the technical complexities are not hurdles to be surmounted in athletic triumph. Instead they are intensifications of thematic expression in an essentially lyrical and orchestral context. This deeply questing character, so eloquently developed, has made the concerto a favorite of probingly musical violinists, with at least six recordings currently in print.

— John Henken is Director of Publications for the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association.