Tuesday July 10 2018
It is with great sadness that we mark the sudden passing of Oliver Knussen, composer, conductor, teacher and former artistic director of the Aldeburgh Festival. Oliver (Olly) was an original and influential figure in contemporary composition. His specific connections with Aldeburgh date back to childhood and extend to his most recent appearance at the Festival, just a few weeks ago, conducting the BBC Symphony in music by Copland, Cashian and Feldman.
His background provided him with the ideal context for a musical life, particularly one with strong connections to Aldeburgh. Born in Glasgow he grew up in London where his father Stuart Knussen was for many years the principal Double Bassist with the London Symphony Orchestra. His father’s association with Britten was forged through playing at Festival concerts as a member of the the English Chamber Orchestra and performing with the English Opera Group in the premiere of Curlew River in 1964.
Olly’s own musical aspirations were inspired by Britten’s music and through conversations with him in the early 1960s. He studied composition, first with John Lambert in the UK and later with Gunther Schiller at Tanglewood, Massachusetts. It was at Tanglewood that he eventually became Head of the Contemporary Music Center, holding the post for seven years. He was also closely linked with the London Sinfonietta, the Hague Residentie Orchestra, the BBC Symphony Orchestra and the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group. His own work as a composer began in earnest in the late 1960s and soon showed diversity and originality, beginning with a symphony (composed at the age of 15) and soon included works for chamber, vocal and orchestral forces. His fantasy operas Where the Wild Things Are and Higglety Pigglety Pop! (both based on children’s books by Maurice Sendak) have achieved great popularity and were last performed, in the composer’s presence, at Aldeburgh to a very warm reception in 2012.
Aldeburgh was a place of great importance to Olly. Having nurtured his initial talent he generously returned to serve on the board of artistic directors for the Festival between 1983 and 1998. During this time he appeared as conductor as well as teacher, taking, with Colin Matthews, a number of workshops in contemporary music and leading composition courses at the Britten–Pears School for Advanced Musical Studies. Appropriately, he was appointed Richard Rodney Bennett Professor at the Royal Academy of Music—a title named after a composer he greatly admired.
He made his home in Snape, a source of much inspiration for his music, not far from the Maltings Concert Hall. His wife, music programme producer Sue Knussen, died in 2003, and he commemorated her with settings of poems by Auden, Rilke, Machado and Emily Dickinson for soprano and ensemble in Requiem – Songs for Sue. Their daughter Sonya continues the music tradition and is a professional mezzo-soprano. In 2015 he was awarded the Queen’s Medal for Music.
Olly’s work as a conductor is renowned and he has left a significant legacy of recordings not only of his own music but interpretations of a large number of other composers—including a full length version of Britten’s ballet The Prince of the Pagodas recorded with the London Sinfonietta in 1989.
Olly was loved by audiences, especially those at the Maltings—mostly because he always infused his writing and performing with generosity, good humour, thoughtfulness and intelligence. In 2002 he conducted the BBC Symphony at the final concert of that year’s Festival. He emerged on stage expecting to begin Stravinsky’s Feu d’artifice but as he raised his baton he was greeted instead by a surprise rendition of ‘Happy Birthday’—marking his fiftieth year—by orchestra and audience alike. He went on to lead orchestra and soloists in works by Carter, Stravinsky and, appropriately, Knussen—committed, as always, to music of his time.