‘I’m a big person. I’m just physically big and I enjoy life,’ Oliver Knussen once said. ‘I don’t know whether it’s extremely significant or just something that’s completely unresolved inside me, but I am profoundly drawn to miniature things, and fineness of detail and precision.’
Whatever Knussen’s physical stature – he was often described as a ‘bear of a man’ – his works are anything but large in scale: only a handful of his pieces spill over the 20-minute mark and his music is renowned for its exquisite craftsmanship, its intricate textural detail and its delicate, shimmering colours. But the brevity of his compositions belies their extraordinary power. His two published symphonies and his concertos for horn (1994) and for violin (2002) may each only last around a quarter of an hour, but he was somehow able to cram a mind-boggling quantity of creative invention and emotional intensity into every one of his mesmerising works.
All this precision came at a cost, however. The painstaking care with which Knussen polished his scores also saw him skidding through deadlines like a knife through butter, often finishing works late or not at all. He also reworked his compositions long after their premieres, finishing the revisions for his ‘fantasy opera’ Higgelty Pigglety Pop! some 15 years after the work was first performed (incomplete) in 1984. ‘A piece wants to be what it wants to be,’ he later said, ‘and the few times I’ve forced it to be something else to meet a deadline, I’ve regretted it.’
These perfectionist tendencies, or what Knussen described as ‘my rather extreme capacity for self-criticism’, may well have sprung from his unusually intense initiation into the world of classical music.
Born in Glasgow in 1952, he grew up living and breathing orchestral scores. His father, Stuart Knussen, was principal double bass of the London Symphony Orchestra for nearly 20 years and Oliver often reflected on the impact of growing up in a world so resplendent with sound: ‘It never occurred to me that not everybody thought [music] was the most important thing in life’.
Knussen began piano lessons as a boy (‘I was a terrible piano student’) and the instant he learnt to read music, began to compose. Things escalated quickly: aged just 15, he found himself on stage at the Royal Festival Hall conducting the LSO in his First Symphony after principal conductor István Kertész fell ill. Daniel Barenboim promptly invited him to conduct the work’s first two movements in New York a week later.
This remarkable debut was followed by more success, with commissions from such luminaries as Benjamin Britten, André Previn and Yehudi Menuhin. In 1971, he completed his Second Symphony, a radiant, dream- like and astonishingly accomplished song cycle for voice and orchestra. As composer Julian Anderson later remarked, ‘Knussen’s compositional personality abruptly appeared, fully formed.’
Knussen remained sceptical about the fuss made of his debut: ‘I don’t like all this prodigy rubbish, I just started early.’ And he later described the buzz surrounding his First Symphony, a score that he later withdrew, as ‘a wound that has never really healed… I suspect some of my more troublesome personality traits can be traced back to that time.’
A fellowship at Tanglewood Music Center from 1970-73 provided a welcome release for the much-scrutinised young composer: ‘I was judged for what I actually did, rather than as a result of my background.’ Refreshed and reassured, he wrote his acclaimed chamber works Rosary Songs (1972), Océan de Terre (1976) and the enduringly popular Ophelia Dances (1975). Described by Mark- Anthony Turnage as ‘the perfect miniature from the best ears in the business’, this eight-minute work for nine instruments takes much of its raw material from Schumann’s Carnaval and Debussy’s La boîte à joujoux and ‘Gigues’ from Images. ‘I wanted to write a piece whose light- headed and giddy qualities would suggest a crossing of the line that divides laughter from tears,’ Knussen wrote.
Ophelia Dances captures a crucial feature of Knussen’s music: despite what we know of his assiduous revisions, his scores often convey a jubilant playfulness. See, for instance, his collaboration with children’s author Maurice Sendak, an artistic pairing as unlikely as it is befitting. Knussen had long been interested in Sendak’s mischievous and visionary picture books, but was astonished when, out of the blue, the telephone rang and ‘a shy voice said: “This is Maurice Sendak. Can we just start by me asking you what you think is the best children’s opera ever written?” I said, “The second act of Boris Godunov.” He said, “Right answer,” and from that point on we became very close.’ For Knussen, Musorgsky was ‘the supreme composer of music about children.’
From here, he wrote two operas, Where the Wild Things Are (1979-83) – which included references to Boris Godunov – and Higgelty Pigglety Pop! (1984-5), based on Sendak’s books, which stand among Knussen’s most cherished works. And whatever the last-minute dramas that attended the completion of these scores, the operas themselves sound like effortlessly instinctive responses to Sendak’s other-worldly stories.
The apparent spontaneity heard in Knussen’s music is, however, always thoroughly grounded in compositional technique: ‘I can’t stand muck! … I don’t want to be thought of as somebody whose music is vague.’ A closer look at Knussen’s scores finds them fizzing with closely crafted technical detail. Such techniques ranged widely.
There are, for instance, the serialist structures that weave through his Stravinsky-inspired Flourish with Fireworks (1988), written for Michael Tilson Thomas and the LSO and featuring a tone row built from the musical solmisation ‘initials’ of LSO (La, Es, Sol, which equates to A, E-flat, G) and MTT (Mi, Ti, Ti, which gives E, B, B). And then there was the influence of Elliott Carter in Knussen’s use of ‘metric modulation’, where the pulse of the music moves seamlessly across shifting time signatures.
In keeping with Stravinsky and Carter – two stalwarts of the anti-sentimental – Knussen was also far from misty-eyed as to what composition was all about: ‘I don’t think a composer who is actually writing a piece of music should be conscious of self- expression. I hate the idea of somebody sitting down and thinking… “My cat’s just died. I’m going to write a Requiem Mass for the cat”.’ Even a work such as Prayer Bell Sketch (1997), written in memory of close friend Toru Takemitsu, was grounded first and foremost in the technical: ‘I took a chord that he used in virtually every one of his pieces in the ’80s and I took a title that he hadn’t used and I then fashioned a little piece from that; it was like taking his chord for a walk around various objects that I associated with him, or various ways of thinking. But you have to invent technical procedures to do that.’
The death of Knussen’s wife in 2003 marked something of a shift in the composer’s approach. The couple had separated in the mid-1990s but remained close and the loss of Sue prompted Knussen to compose one of his most personal works, Requiem – Songs for Sue (2006) for soprano and 15-piece ensemble. Knussen was at first hesitant: ‘I wasn’t sure whether it was a piece that actually ought to be let out at all, because it is very personal, and because I didn’t want it to be a self-indulgent thing.’
But Songs for Sue is anything but. Uncharacteristically sparse in texture, it is a luminous, restrained yet deeply expressive piece. And as so often with Knussen’s music (Songs for Sue lasts just 13 minutes), the work’s concision belies its tremendous power: as the composer himself remarked: ‘It’s not a huge work … but it’s a big piece emotionally.’
Knussen’s own death in July 2018 was marked by a terrific outpouring of love and respect from across the music world. As well as being a remarkable composer and conductor, he was a heartfelt champion of younger composers, and the tributes that flooded in reflected his kindness and generosity of spirit. ‘Olly was the greatest musician I’ve ever known,’ said Turnage. ‘He was also my closest friend.’
The final work Knussen completed before his death was O Hototogisu! for voice, flute and ensemble. The title draws on the Japanese word for ‘Lesser Cuckoo’, a creature widely invoked in Edo-era Japanese literature as both a harbinger of summer and (rather uncannily) ‘a voice from the land of the dead’. Lyrical yet taut, yearning yet brittle, delicate yet powerful, the piece perfectly conjures all the expressive contradictions so characteristic of Knussen’s endlessly imaginative, complex, magical music. If only we could hear what he would have written next.