Born in Angers in 1916 (his family was originally from the North of France), Henri Dutilleux studied music at the National Conservatory in Paris in the years prior to World War II. In 1938, Dutilleux won the "First Grand Prix de Rome" but spent only a brief time at the Villa Medicis - from February to June 1939 - before entering the Armed Forces in August of that year.
At the Liberation in 1945, Dutilleux was appointed Director of the Musical Illustrations Department of French Radio and Television, leaving the job in 1963 in order to devote himself fully to composition. He was appointed Professor at the Conservatoire National Supérieur from 1970 to 1971. In 1967, Dutilleux was the first recipient of the "Grand Prix National de la Musique" in France.
In one of his first works, the "Sonata" for piano (1947), Dutilleux demonstrated his detachment from established forms. In 1951, his First Symphony brough the composer international renown which was to be enhanced by the recording of the work under the auspices of the International Music Council of UNESCO. In 1959, Dutilleux composed his Second Symphony. Le Double, on commission from the Koussevitzky Foundation and the Boston Symphony Orchestra. In the presence of the composer, the Orchestra performed the work under the direction of Charles Munch in Boston, Washington and New York. In 1953, at the request of Roland Petit, Dutilleux wrote the ballet music Le Loup (The Wolf).
In January 1965, Dutilleux went to the United States for the first performance of Metaboles which had been commissioned by the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra and the Musical Arts Association. The work, performed under the direction of George Szell, consists of five connected parts (Incantatoire, Linéaire, Obsessionnel, Torpide and Flamboyant) and affirms the composer's predilection for orchestral timbre, the language of which is determined by Dutilleux's distinctive concept of the principle of variation.
The work for cello and orchestra entitled Tout un Monde Lointain (A Whole Distant World) was first performed in 1970 at the Festival of Aix-en-Provence by Mstislav Rostropovich, who had commissioned the composition and who later recorded it for E.M.I : His Master's Voice. In 1976, the recording received the Koussevitzky International Recording Award, given annually to a contemporary work.
In the meantime, Dutilleux received a further commission from the Koussevitzky Foundation for a string quartet. Entitled Ainsi la Nuit (Thus the Night), the work was first performed in the U.S. by the Juilliard String Quartet (April 1978 at the Library of Congress in Washington). The first French performance of the work was given by the Parrenin Quartet in January 1977 for the Collectif Musical 2E 2M.
In 1978, a new work by Henri Dutilleux was commissioned by the National Symphony Orchestra. Under the direction of Rostropovich, the first performance of the work, entitled Timbre, Espace, Mouvement (Timbre, Space, Movement) ou La Nuit Étoilée (The Starry Night) was given at the Kennedy Center in Washington in 1978.
Henri Dutilleux has been a member of the International Music Council of UNESCO.
An Associate Member of the Royal Academy of Belgium since 1973, Henri Dutilleux was made an honorary member of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters of New York in March 1981.