'Oliver Knussen quotes from Boris Godunov in his children's opera Where the Wild Things Are. You could be forgiven for thinking Oliver Knussen is Boris himself : a gentle Mussorgskian giant, he seems, at a casual glance, to embody many of the characteristics, not so much of the opera's bullish, precocious hero as of the shy, rumpled, peace-loving wild creatures themselves, stirring from their amiable slumber.' - Roderic Dunnett, writing in 2001
British composer and conductor Oliver 'Olly' Knussen was born in Glasgow on 12 June 1952 into a well-connected musical family. (His father was principal double bass of the London Symphony Orchestra.) He began writing music at about six years old, and later studied composition with John Lambert and Gunther Schuller. He also received encouragement from Benjamin Britten.
At the age of fifteen, commissioned to write his first symphony by the LSO, Olly stepped in to conduct the orchestra in the work's first performance in London, when István Kertész was ill. Knussen's Symphony No 3 (1973-9), dedicated to Michael Tilson Thomas, is widely regarded as a modern classic.
As a composer, Olly was with Faber Music for over forty years, and is well-known for his two major works from the 1980s - the children's operas Where the Wild Things Are and Higglety Pigglety Pop!, both with libretti by Maurice Sendak, and based on Sendak's books. This operatic double bill, originally produced by Glyndebourne Festival Opera, has been performed extensively in the USA and Europe. His 1988 Flourish with Fireworks has become a frequently used concert opener, and his horn and violin concerti have also entered the standard orchestral repertoire. Requiem - Songs for Sue (2006) honours the memory of Knussen's wife Sue, the American-born TV producer who died in 2003. Knussen and Sue Freedman met at Tanglewood and married in 1972.
As a conductor he was an advocate for a wide range of contemporary music, and recorded prolifically. Various first performances include those by Julian Anderson, Elliott Carter and Hans Werner Henze.
Knussen lived in Snape, Suffolk, and was artistic director of the Aldeburgh Festival from 1983 until 1998, where, with Colin Matthews in 1992, he established the Britten-Pears Programme's Contemporary Composition and Performance courses.
Knussen's music received the honour of a BBC Symphony Orchestra 'Total Immersion' festival at London's Barbican Centre in 2012, as part of the composer's sixtieth birthday celebrations. In 2014 Knussen became the inaugural Richard Rodney Bennett Professor of Music at the Royal Academy of Music in London, where he recently received an honorary doctorate. In 2015 he received the Queen's Medal for Music. In 2018 his manuscripts were acquired by the Sacher Foundation in Basel.
Oliver Knussen died on 9 July 2018, aged sixty-six, following a short illness.
A selection of M&V articles about Oliver Knussen
Complete Engagement - Mike Wheeler listens to pianist Helen Reid
CD Spotlight. Cuts and Dissolves - Music by Turnage, Rihm and Benjamin, reviewed by Carson Cooman. '... a well-planned listening experience ...'
Mussorgskian giant - Roderic Dunnett on the massive talents of the English composer and conductor Oliver Knussen