Henri Dutilleux began studying music at the Conservatoire of Douai. In 1933 he entered the Conservatoire de Paris, where he studied with Noël Gallon, Philippe Gaubert, Henri Busser and Maurice Emmanuel.
At the age of thirteen, in 1929, he wrote his first composition, La Fleur, after à poem by Charles-Hubert Millevoye. In 1938 he won the "Grand Prix de Rome" for the cantata L’Anneau du roi, and in 1939 he spent a few months at the Villa Medici, the Academy of France in Rome. During these years he particularly explored the works of D’Indy, Stravinsky and Roussel.
In the 1940s, Dutilleux was chorus master at the Opéra de Paris and employee at the music department of the French audiovisual services (Radiodiffusion française). His early works were premieres in the same years: Quatre mélodies for voice and piano (1943) and La Geôle for voice and orchestra (1944).
For his Symphony No. 1 (1951), he conceived four monothematic movements within a symmetric structure. The work was premiered the same year by Roger Désormière and the Orchestre National de France.
On the contrary, for Métaboles (1965), he abandoned the symmetrical order of the Symphony to conceive a series of permutations of the work’s structure. In order to do that, he composed the beginning of the first four movements of his work for four different sections of the orchestra, and the last one for the orchestra as a whole.
Dutilleux composed some of his works for great musicians such as Mstislav Rostropovitch, for whom he wrote A whole distant world (1970) and Trois strophes sur le nom de Sacher (1976). Between 1983 and 1985 he was commissioned by Lorin Maazel and the Orchestre National de France to compose his concerto for violin and orchestra, The tree of Dreams, interpreted by Isaac Stern. In fact, the first person for whom he composed one of his works was his wife, the pianist Geneviève Joy. They got married in 1946 and Dutilleux wrote for her his Piano sonata between 1946 and 1948. He also wrote Figures de Résonance for two pianos (for Geneviève and Jacqueline Robin), premiered in 1970 and completed with two more Figures in 1977.
Dutilleux received the “Grand prix national de la musique” in 1967 and the “Praemium Imperiale” of Japan in 1994, both acknowledging his entire career. Besides, he also won the “Grand prix de la ville de Paris” in 1974, the “Grand prix international du disque de Montreux” in 1983 and the Maurice Ravel international prize along with the “Prix du Conseil International de la Musique” in 1987. The Shadows of Time obtained a Royal Philharmonic Society Award in 1998 and the “Prix de Cannes”, as well as the “Grand prix de la presse musicale internationale”, in 1999. Furthermore, Dutilleux has been the third French composer to receive the Ernst von Siemens international prize (2005).
Among his latest works, Dutilleux composed between 2007 and 2009 Le Temps, l’horloge for voice and orchestra, written for Renée Fleming after some texts by Jean Tardieu and Robert Desnos.