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Oliver Knussen

Gavin Thomas introduces the work of Oliver Knussen (1952– ).

Also on C:T - Daniel Jaffé's Interview with Oliver Knussen
- Recent performances


Oliver Knussen is one of British music’s great originals, and a rare example of a contemporary composer who has succeeded in writing music that is at once thoroughly modern but also shamelessly enjoyable. Knussen’s combination of artfulness and accessibility informs every aspect of his music. It is technically complex and often fiendishly challenging for performers, but also vivid and direct in its appeal. It is painstakingly crafted (Knussen is a notorious perfectionist, and a famously slow composer) but in performance sounds captivatingly effortless and spontaneous. His pieces are typically short (few movements exceed five minutes), and yet Knussen generally packs so much musical incident into even the briefest timespans that one hardly thinks of him as a miniaturist. And although some of his works have a childlike quality and a certain undersized, toy-box charm, they conceal, like the children’s books of his operatic collaborator Maurice Sendak, complex and very adult depths.

Born in 1952 into a musical family (his father, Stuart, was principal double bassist of the London Symphony Orchestra for many years), Knussen was something of a prodigy as both composer and performer, conducting the London Symphony Orchestra in the premiere of his first symphony at the age of just fifteen. Two further symphonies followed during the 1970s, along with a sequence of beautifully crafted pieces for smaller ensembles such as Ophelia Dances (1975), Cantata (1975) and Coursing (1979). Most of the 1980s were occupied by work on a pair of chamber operas, Where the Wild Things Are and Higglety Pigglety Pop!, which confirmed Knussen’s stature as one of the brightest talents of his generation. The operas also saw a new playfulness creeping into his musical style, along with an increasing opening up to past influences (such as when, in Wild Things, Max is crowned King of the Wild Things to a famous phrase borrowed from the coronation music in Boris Godunov – a small but wonderfully apt comic touch).

Following the completion of the two operas, Knussen returned to mainly instrumental formats in the 1990s, often writing for relatively modest forces and crafting works that were small in scale, but not in effect. The results included the Horn Concerto, Two Organa, Songs Without Voices (1992), and, most recently, the Violin Concerto (2002) Although entirely of their time, these works often cast loving backward glances towards past masters such as PÈrotin, Mussorgsky, Mahler, Debussy and Britten – reflecting Knussen’s desire to establish “an active relationship with music that attracts me from afar”, and his instinct “that a whiff of something recognizable can help the first-time listener find some bearings in what is sometimes a profusion of activity – a sense that while the settings of some of these fairy tales may be forests, and quite dense ones at that, they are neither necessarily forbidding nor unwelcoming ones.”

Article and review pages originally published in The Rough Guide to Classical Music