Oliver Knussen

Oliver Knussen the composer/conductor died aged 62 in 2018. Knussen was a much sought-after conductor and interpreter of the 20th century repertoire, especially of the works of Benjamin Britten. As a composer, he was perhaps best known for his work with the writer and artist Maurice Sendak, producing two operas based on Sendak’s books, ‘Where the wild things are’, and ‘Higglety Pigglety Pop!’ 

Where the wild things are – Jim Henson studios
by JeffChristiansen from United States, CC BY 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Knussen lived most of his adult life in London or in his beloved Snape in Suffolk. It might therefore be wrong of us to try and claim one of the world’s foremost composer/conductors as a Scot, but Oliver Knussen was born in Glasgow, to Jane Alexander and Stuart Knussen, so Scottish he was. 

Oliver Knussen
17.IX – Orchestra Mozart, CC BY 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Knussen, it is said by those who knew him, would have scoffed at the idea of him being a child prodigy, but he did start to write music from the age of six, and had his first symphony played by the LSO, London Symphony Orchestra, at the age of fifteen, a performance which he conducted himself.  

Having a father, Stuart Knussen, as Principal Double Bassist with the LSO, gave the young Knussen remarkable access and insight in to the workings of the symphony orchestra. The first performance of this commissioned, youthful, 1st symphony was to have been by the LSO’s principal conductor Istvan Kertesz, due to his illness, the baton was taken up by the 15-year-old Knussen. The composer has since withdrawn this symphony from his list of works. 

Knussen’s father Stuart, also played for the English Opera Group and the English Chamber Orchestra, so was involved in first and early performances of the works of Benjamin Britten. In an article in the Guardian in 2013 entitled Oliver Knussen: ‘Britten pointed me on the right path in the simplest, kindest way’, Knussen recounts how he met and was encouraged by the great English composer. In one amusing anecdote, Britten asked who Knussen’s composition teacher was, to which Knussen replied “John Lambert, who was a pupil of Nadia Boulanger”. At this, Knussen says that Britten didn’t say anything rude about Boulanger, which seemingly he normally did. 

Benjamin Britten
by Szalay Zoltán, CC BY-SA 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Teacher and composer Julien Anderson said of Knussen’s 2nd Symphony, written and performed in 1970/71, with this work, “Oliver Knussen’s compositional personality abruptly appeared fully formed”. A phrase, more than once attached to descriptions of Knussen’s works, is, its crystalline concision, complexity and richness. Knussen was not a prolific composer, Thomas Ades, the British Composer, when writing in tribute of Oliver Knussen said “Olly Knussen taught me that a work takes as long as it takes. He worked only to his own timescale and it was like a diamond forming”. His output then was periodic and sometimes short. He seemed to work on a principal, why take ten minutes to say something when you can say it in less, sometimes much less. A modernist expressionist composer, his works are difficult but very approachable. Knussen was a fiercely intelligent council to his colleagues, friends, and fellow composers, with a formidable knowledge of 20th and 21st century music and music-makers. His “crystalline concision” as a composer was mentioned earlier, but this attention to detail and precision was also expected as a conductor of his orchestras. His ability to hear detail is mentioned by many. Hearing things that he didn’t want to in the fore of a recording, or the opposite, not hearing a detail he felt should stand out. Knussen’s extraordinary ear/hearing is often mentioned and made him an exacting musician to work with.  

Knussen married Sue Freedland in 1972. Before her marriage to Knussen she had been a freelance horn player, and worked as assistant to Leonard Bernstein, preparing the Unanswered Question Lectures, after coming to Britain, Sue worked for both the BBC and Channel Four as a Music Producer. The couple had unfortunately separated in the period before her untimely death at the age of 53 in 2003. Knussen completed his Requiem: Songs for Sue in 2006, and described the work concisely: ‘It’s not a huge work… but it’s a big piece emotionally’. 

Although not prolific Knussen has a formidable list of works including two operas, three symphonies, many chamber works for small groups in many differing formations. His recorded output is extensive, not only of his own work, but that of others, and a long list of teaching, conducting and performance appointments, this is just a few in no order at all – 

Artistic Director of the Aldeburgh Festival 1983 – 1998
Head of Contemporary Music at The Tanglewood Music Centre 1986 – 1993
Principal Guest Conductor Hague Residence Orchestra 1993 – 1997 
Musical Director of the London Sinfonietta 1998 – 2002 
Artist-in-Association BBC Symphony Orchestra 2009 – 2014 
Knussen co-founded the composition course at the Britten Pears School of Music in 1992
In 2014 Knussen was the inaugural Richard Rodney Bennet Professor of Music in the Royal Academy of Music, School of Composition and Contempory Music. 

We have created three short playlists containing some examples of Knussen’s Opera and Orchestral Work, and a small selection of Knussen as conductor. There are many more at edinburghcitylib.naxosmusiclibrary.com

Oliver Knussen playlists on Naxos Music Library


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