Oliver Knussen

Oliver Knussen

(born Glasgow 12 June 1952; died Snape 8 July 2018)

British composer and conductor Oliver Knussen was one of the most influential figures in contemporary music, whose works were characterised by their complexity and richness as much as by their concision.

Knussen's Musical Style

His music is always notable for the exceptional clarity of musical ideas and the precision and subtlety of instrumental colour.

As a conductor, he premiered works by most of the leading figures of the late twentieth-/early twenty-first century, including Henze, Takemitsu, Carter and Birtwistle.

Knussen's Life

While Knussen himself would have laughed at any notion that he was a child prodigy, his gifts came to light very early and he studied privately with John Lambert from the age of 11. Through his father, principal double bass of the London Symphony Orchestra, Knussen came into contact with Benjamin Britten, who encouraged him in his development as a composer. He subsequently also studied with Gunther Schuller at Tanglewood.

In 1968, aged 15, he conducted the LSO in the premiere of his First Symphony. As the 1970s progressed, he wrote with increased assurance, a Second Symphony (1970) was commissioned by Yehudi Menuhin, and with the completion of his Third Symphony (1973–5) his musical style was fully established.

This was a period of intense creativity for Knussen which led to the pair of fantasy operas he wrote in collaboration with the writer Maurice Sendak: Where the Wild Things Are and Higglety, Pigglety Pop! Despite the operas’ impression of spontaneity, these works, as with so many of Knussen’s later works, were the result of a painstaking and meticulous compositional process which certainly limited the amount of music he was able to produce. But as his friend the composer Colin Matthews has remarked, every bar Knussen wrote ‘is measured against all the music that he knows and loves’.

Later important works include concertos for horn and for violin, Requiem – Songs for Sue (2005–6) in tribute to his wife, and O Hototogisu! (2017)

Notable Operas

  • Where the Wild Things Are (1979–83)
  • Higglety, Pigglety Pop! (1984–90)

Outside of opera:

  • Symphony No. 3 (1973–5)
  • Horn Concerto (1994)
  • Violin Concerto (2002)
  • Requiem – Songs for Sue (2005–6)