Oliver Knussen

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Oliver Knussen CBE (born 12 June 1952) is a British composer and conductor.


Oliver Knussen was born in Glasgow, Scotland. His father, Stuart Knussen, was principal double bass of the London Symphony Orchestra, and also participated in a number of premieres of Benjamin Britten's music.[1] Oliver Knussen studied composition with John Lambert between 1963 and 1969, and also received encouragement from Britten. He spent several summers studying with Gunther Schuller at Tanglewood in Massachusetts and in Boston.[2] He later became the head of contemporary music activities at Tanglewood, between 1986 and 1993.

He was married to Sue Knussen, a US-born producer and director of music programmes for BBC television and for the UK's Channel 4 – for which she made Leaving Home, an introduction to 20th-century music presented by Simon Rattle in a series of seven one-hour programmes, which won the 1996 BAFTA award for "Best Arts Series".[3] She ran the Los Angeles Philharmonic's education department in the late 1990s. Oliver and Sue Knussen had a daughter, Sonya, who is a mezzo-soprano.

Sue Knussen died of a blood infection in London in 2003. The Sue Knussen Composers Fund (previously, the Sue Knussen Commissioning Fund) "honours her memory and professional legacy...and...commissions works from emerging composers to be performed by contemporary music ensembles worldwide."[4]

Knussen lives in Snape, Suffolk, Benjamin Britten's base during one of his most creative periods.[5] Snape Maltings concert hall is the home of the Aldeburgh Festival.

Musical life[edit]

Though Oliver Knussen began composing at about the age of six, it was an ITV programme about his father's work with the London Symphony Orchestra that prompted the commissioning for his first symphony (1966–1967). Aged 15, Knussen stepped in to conduct his symphony's première at the Royal Festival Hall, London, on 7 April 1968, after István Kertész fell ill. After his debut, Daniel Barenboim asked him to conduct the work's first two movements in New York a week later.[6] In this work and his Concerto for Orchestra (1968–1970), he had quickly and fluently absorbed the influences of modernist composers Britten and Berg as well as many mid-century (largely American) symphonists, whilst displaying an unusual flair for pacing and orchestration.[2] It was as early as the Second Symphony (1970–1971), in the words of Julian Anderson, that "Knussen's compositional personality abruptly appeared, fully formed".[7]

Knussen has been principal guest conductor of The Hague's Het Residentie Orkest (Residentie Orchestra) between 1992 and 1996, the Aldeburgh Festival's co-artistic director between 1983 and 1998 and the London Sinfonietta's music director between 1998 and 2002 – and is now that ensemble's conductor laureate.

In 2005 Knussen was the music director of the Ojai Music Festival.

Since September 2006, Knussen has been artist-in-association to the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, and since 2009 to the BBC Symphony Orchestra.

His major works from the 1980s are his two "children's operas", Where the Wild Things Are and Higglety Pigglety Pop!, both libretti by Maurice Sendak – and based on Sendak's own eponymous children's books.[8] Where the Wild Things Are received its New York premiere in November 1986 by New York City Opera, which also performed the work in April 2011.

Knussen wrote his Songs for Sue, a setting of four poems for soprano and 15-piece ensemble, as a memorial tribute to his late wife, and the music received its world première in Chicago in 2006. "...I knew there were a number of Dickinson poems addressed to her sister, Sue, so one week I read all 1,700 poems of Emily Dickinson...and I copied out about 35 of them by hand, Knussen told Tom Service in London's The Guardian[9] I have no idea where the notes for this piece come from...It seemed to want to be written...I wasn't sure whether it...ought to be let out at all...because I didn't want it to be a self-indulgent thing. But actually it's very restrained. It's not a huge work - about 13 minutes - but it's a big piece emotionally."

As of fall 2012, Knussen was writing a symphonic adagio for the Philadelphia Orchestra. He was also planning to finish two concertos that he has worked on for several years: one for piano and one for cello.[10]

His recordings as a conductor include works by Ruth Crawford Seeger, Elliott Carter, Igor Stravinsky, Alexander Goehr, Robin Holloway and Poul Ruders.


Knussen's works include the following:


  1. ^ Reed, Philip & Mervyn Cooke. Letters from a Life: The Selected Letters of Benjamin Britten, 1913-1976: Vol. 5: 1958-1965. Boydell Press, 2010: p. xxxviii
  2. ^ a b Julian Anderson. "Knussen, Oliver", Grove Music Online, ed. L. Macy (accessed 14 June 2007), grovemusic.com (subscription access).
  3. ^ Sue Knussen – obituary, Variety, 16 April 2003.Accessed on 19 August 2007.
  4. ^ Singsthings, Sonya Knussen's website.Accessed on 19 August 2007.
  5. ^ Benjamin Britten's long association... – John Waddell, snapevillage.org.uk.Accessed on 19 August 2007]
  6. ^ Bryan Northcott, 'Oliver Knussen', The Musical Times, Vol. 120, No. 1639. (Sep., 1979), pp. 729-732
  7. ^ Anderson, Julian, 'The later Music of Oliver Knussen. Catching up with Knussen in his 40th Year', The Musical Times, Vol. 133, No. 1794. (Aug., 1992), pp. 393-394.
  8. ^ Oliver Knussen interview, Classic CD, February 1999.Accessed on 19 August 2007.
  9. ^ I had to write it – G2 section, The Guardian, London, 19 October 2006.Accessed on 20 August 2007.
  10. ^ http://articles.latimes.com/2012/oct/07/entertainment/la-et-cm-oliver-knussen-maurice-sendak-20121007/2

External links[edit]

Preceded by
Markus Stenz
Music Director, London Sinfonietta
Succeeded by
no successor as of 2006