Oliver Knussen (1952-2018)

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Yellow Barn's concert this Friday, July 13 was meant in part to celebrate the revered British composer Oliver Knussen, with the performance of three of his works. It is with great sadness that these performances must now be presented in memoriam to this composer who will be deeply missed.

In the words of BBC broadcaster Tom Service, “Oliver Knussen’s sheer brilliance as composer and conductor, his support for generations of younger composers and musicians, with whom he created a performance practice for music from Elliott Carter to Helen Grime—made him an essential part of our musical life. His music is one of the life-enhancing glories of the repertoire of the 20th and 21st centuries."

The Guardian published the following obituary on July 9, 2018:

Oliver Knussen, who has died aged 66, was a towering figure in contemporary music, as composer and conductor, teacher and artistic director. The relatively small size of his compositional output conceals music of exceptional refinement and subtlety—a few bars of Knussen may have more impact than whole movements by lesser composers.

Besides definitive interpretations of his own music, he must surely have given more first performances than any other conductor, alongside an outstanding body of recordings. He was the central focus of so many activities, and an irreplaceable mentor to his fellow composers, who constantly sought and relied on his advice and encouragement.

He was born in Glasgow, son of Jane (nee Alexander) and Stuart Knussen; his father was principal double bass of the London Symphony Orchestra for nearly 20 years. Although Knussen would have laughed at any idea of his being a child prodigy, this gave him an unrivalled insight into the workings of the orchestra from an early age. It culminated in his conducting his First Symphony with the LSO at the age of 15, when their principal conductor István Kertész fell ill. His father played in the first performance of Benjamin Britten’s church parable Curlew Riverin 1964. Knussen attended all the rehearsals, and Britten was very encouraging to the young composer, commissioning a work for the 1969 Aldeburgh festival.

Between 1963 and 1969 he studied with the composer John Lambert, which gave him a solid but untraditional grounding. His musical perspectives were expanded greatly by studying in the US with Gunther Schuller from 1970 until 1973 at the Tanglewood Music Center, where he met his future wife, Sue Freedman, then a horn player, later a maker of documentary films. This period saw him writing with ever greater confidence—a Concerto for Orchestra commissioned by André Previn in 1969, and his Second Symphony, commissioned by Yehudi Menuhin in 1970, the latter the first major work in which he felt fully confident of his abilities. Even at the age of 18 his musical personality seemed fully formed.

The 1970s were a period of intense creativity for Knussen, with chamber works including Rosary Songs, Océan de Terreand Ophelia Dances, culminating in the completion in 1979 of his Third Symphony, a work whose first movement had been conducted by its dedicatee, Michael Tilson Thomas, in 1973. But this activity came at a cost: his extreme scrupulousness led him to take increasing care in composing, whether the work was on a small or large scale, and the material for the first complete performance of the symphony at the Proms was delivered only at the last minute. The 70s also saw the beginning of his longstanding relationship with his publisher Faber Music.

Similar problems attended the two “fantasy operas” he wrote in collaboration with Maurice Sendak. Where the Wild Things Are (1979-83) and Higglety Pigglety Pop! (1984-85). These superbly crafted, colourful works give every impression of unaffected spontaneity, but for Knussen it was a slow and painstaking process, with both operas first performed incomplete. Higglety was finally completed to the composer’s satisfaction only in 1999.

Until the 80s conducting had been a second string for Knussen, but gradually began to take up more of his time, particularly with his appointments as artistic director of the Aldeburgh festival from 1983 until 1998 and head of contemporary music activities at Tanglewood between 1986 and 1993. In 1992 he and I founded the Aldeburgh Contemporary Composition Course, where it gave him great pleasure to work with young composers and performers, who gratefully sat at his feet. Conducting was an occupation which gave him much satisfaction, with the opportunity to programme the music of both senior and junior composers, as well as his contemporaries, but it inevitably distracted him from composing. “I certainly wish I could afford to keep the two roles, conducting and composing, in better balance,” he said in 2012.

Most of the works from the next decade were on a smaller scale, but the Whitman Settings(1991), Songs Without Voices(1991-92) and Horn Concerto(1994) stand out as major achievements. He seemed to recover something of the flair of the 70s when he composed Prayer Bell Sketch in three days in 1997 in memory of his great friend the composer Toru Takemitsu, and the Violin Concerto, composed in 2002 for Pinchas Zukerman, which seemed to come almost out of the blue.

The similar intensity of Requiem: Songs for Sue(2005-06) was his considered reaction to the death of his wife in 2003 (he had much earlier composed Sonya’s Lullabyfor the birth of their daughter, now a gifted singer, in 1977). He described this major late work succinctly: “It’s not a huge work ... but it’s a big piece emotionally.” However other works from this period remained incomplete, including the remarkable Cleveland Picturesfor orchestra begun in 2003, withdrawn for revision and still unperformed, and concertos for piano and cello. His last completed work was O Hototogisu!for soprano and ensemble, a tantalising but substantial fragment of an intended larger piece.

Honours came to him in later years—appointment as CBE and honorary membership of the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1994, honorary membership of the Royal Philharmonic Society in 2002 and its conductor award in 2010, the Ivor Novello classical music award and the Queen’s Medal for Music in 2016. He was associate guest conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra from 1989 onwards and their artist in association, 2009-12; artist in association with the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group from 2006; and associate artist of the South Bank Centre in 2006. In 2014 he was made the inaugural Richard Rodney Bennett professor of music at the Royal Academy and was awarded an honorary doctorate there very recently.

But any sense of Olly (as everyone knew him) belonging to the establishment would have been an illusion. He was too big a figure to fit into any easily defined category. He had a voracious appetite for knowledge, with a special love for films—he was a Hitchcock obsessive and became friends with Jim Jarmusch—and painting: he had a fascination for obscure artists such as Joachim Patinir and Ivan Bilibin. But above all his consuming passion was for music. I can think of no composer into whom he could not offer insights, although his taste was very much for the 19th and 20th centuries. It was a love that could and did get in the way of composing: it was as if every bar that he wrote was measured against all the music that he knew, and this explains the almost painfully slow process by which his music was written, and the number of fragments left behind.

He had close friendships with most of the major 20th-century composers—Takemitsu, Hans Werner Henze, Elliott Carter (whose late works he championed), Mauricio Kagel, Harrison Birtwistle and Alexander Goehr, among many others. He even established a relationship with Karlheinz Stockhausen, and loved to tell the story of how, when he said to him “You can call me Olly”, the reply came back “You can call me Stockhausen.”

Although he leaves a wonderful legacy of performance, it is primarily as a composer that he would want to be remembered. It makes it all the more regrettable that, although he gave less time to conducting, due to the ill health which dogged his last years, this did not mean—as he said to me in hope only a couple of months ago—that he would have time to write the music that was in his head, and which would undoubtedly have taken him in new and rewarding directions.

He is survived by Sonya.

—Colin Matthews for The Guardian (July 9, 2018)