An interview with Oliver Knussen

In 2012, BBC Music Magazine interviewed the legendary British composer-conductor to celebrate his 60th birthday

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An interview with Oliver Knussen
Composer-conductor Oliver Knussen
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British composer-conductor Oliver Knussen has died at the age of 66, following a short illness. We look back on his conversation with Fiona Maddocks in 2012 to mark his 60th birthday.

 

Have you always regarded music as a living entity – in the sense that you’ve always seen yourself as a composer?

Yes, I was immersed in music from the beginning. I don’t think it was brainwashing – my father was principal double bass of the LSO and there were always musicians dropping in. That orchestra was extraordinary at that time, with players like Barry Tuckwell (horn), Gervase de Peyer (clarinet), Hugh Maguire, Erich Gruenberg (leaders) and, as leader of the seconds and not yet a conductor, Neville Marriner. My favourite objects as a child were 78s. I liked watching the spinning HMV dog. I could tell the music from the shades and widths of the grooves before I could read the labels!

 

Can you remember what those works were?

Absolutely: among them Leopold Stokowski conducting bits of Sleeping Beauty, and Ernest Ansermet’s Petrushka. We had incomplete bits too, which still give me an odd perspective: sides 3 and 4 of Elgar conducting Falstaff, and sides 4 and 5 of Stokowski’s Rite of Spring! Maybe that’s the root of why I’m prepared to sometimes release pieces as fragments.

 

 

When did you start writing music? 

It was the moment I could read it, which was as soon as I had piano lessons. If I never made the decision to be a musician, I did make the active choice of being a composer. I was a terrible piano student and it was clear I was more keen on making up my own stuff.

 

In your early teens you met Britten and your First Symphony was performed by
the LSO, conducted by you…

Dad was working at Aldeburgh at the time. In fact the bass part of Curlew River was written for him. Of the various people he asked for advice about me, Britten was one. He invited me to tea – I was terribly shy – and treated me seriously: was I doing counterpoint? Did I plan my pieces carefully? I didn’t have lessons as such, but he kept a watchful eye. When I arrived at the Festival Hall for the infamous premiere of my Symphony he had sent a telegram. Afterwards Britten was the first person who offered me a commission, for the 1969 Aldeburgh Festival.

 

 

Why ‘infamous’?

It’s a sort of wound that has never healed, an occurrence I wish would be calmly forgotten. I never seem to be able to get rid of the bloody thing! I do think it’s pretty remarkable that a kid of 14 actually wrote such a thing – though it’s very withdrawn now. It was good that I heard it – these days one would have sent itoff to be done in a workshop and that would be the end of it. But with the LSO it became a nine-day wonder – press photographers on the doorstep next morning and all that. It wasn’t until I got a fellowship to Tanglewood, where I was encouraged by Gunther Schuller, that I felt in an environment where I was judged for what I did, rather than as a result of my background.

 

You have kept parallel lives as conductor and composer, and managed a substantial corpus of published work – you’re currently working on Opus 35. Do you have any regrets or specific aims?

I wish I had written a hell of a lot more. I’d like to get to 50 pieces, ideally. I wish I could afford to keep the two roles in better balance. A defining event of the past decade was that in 2003 my daughter Sonya’s mum, Sue, died. Then two years later I got quite ill, too, and I became more aware that time will eventually run out. Family becomes very important at such times. Sonya is now a mezzo, training in Baltimore. Earlier this year she sang Pierre Boulez’s Le Marteau sans maître! What do they say – what goes round comes round?

 

 

Why have you had difficulty finishing your commissions?

I find it hard psychologically to switch from the conducting persona to being at home alone. It’s almost schizophrenic… I like working with other people, it’s a good way of stopping yourself being solipsistic. But I’m not a composer who can dash something off. I won’t let go unless I’ve really done what I set out to do. I was very pleased Ophelia’s Last Dance went down well and has been recorded. There’s been a big piece for the Cleveland Orchestra on the back burner for several years, and I’m now working on a piano concerto for Peter Serkin, partly inspired by Kabuki, which I hope to finish very soon. 

 

You live in Snape, close to the Aldeburgh Festival and all those associations with Britten and your childhood…

Yes, I was working at the festival and needed a base. I stayed. It’s not because of Britten but because it’s very beautiful and quiet, and the small town atmosphere is not unlike growing up in the suburbs 50 years ago. But I live alone and get quite lonely, so I may not stay forever.

 

 

A gift you have given the music world is your support for younger composers.

I’ve tried to make up for the ridiculous privileges I’ve had myself – growing up ‘in’ an orchestra, having my music played publicly at an absurd age – so in a way I’m paying my dues, but I’m happy to. I don’t like selfish, isolationist attitudes and I really am interested in what others are doing. If you’ve got an ability you should use it to help your colleagues. There’s some wonderful young composing talent coming up: Helen Grime, Luke Bedford, Ryan Wigglesworth, Charlotte Bray and Sean Shepherd, for starters.

 

What inspires you outside music?

I’m crazy about art – though I have no aptitude for it at all. Recently I’ve come to appreciate Goya in much the same way I’ve come to love Beethoven, much more than I did… And yes, it all relates to how I think about music. It’s no coincidence that I did my operas with an artist [Maurice Sendak]. I’m thrilled they’re being staged at Aldeburgh and the Barbican, for the first time since Glyndebourne, by and for a new generation who have never seen them. And for once I can sit back and watch. That’s a wonderful 60th birthday present.  

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