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Music

A class act – in memory of composer and conductor Oliver Knussen

As the world mourns the loss of a true great of British classical music, Claire Jackson remembers a man of dazzling creativity and craftsmanship.

The sub-tropical temperatures made wearing the gowns hot but, given the circumstances, few minded the inconvenience. London’s St Marylebone Parish Church and the new Susie Sainsbury Theatre bustled with students receiving their hard-earned degrees from the Royal Academy of Music (RAM). The graduates were joined by a clutch of eminent figures from the arts world who were also receiving awards. Among them was pianist Paul Lewis, who accepted an honorary membership, along with Hugh Laurie and Imelda Staunton, and composer and conductor Oliver Knussen, who was given the degree of Doctor of Music ‘honoris causa’, following in the footsteps of Elton John, Peter Maxwell Davies and Daniel Barenboim. Knussen’s work – as artistic director (including Aldeburgh Festival 1983-98 and Tanglewood Music Centre 1986-93), teacher (including at the RAM) and artist (closely tied to the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group and London Sinfonietta) – dazzles for its creativity and craftsmanship.

Sadly, just a few days after accepting the doctorate in person, it was announced that Knussen had passed away. He was 66; the music world reeled in shock at the unexpected loss. A recent revival of his two operas – Where the Wild Things Are (1979-83) and Higgledy Piggledy Pop! (1984-85), written in collaboration with Wild Things creator Maurice Sendak – at Aldeburgh, staged to coincide with the composer’s 60th birthday, had brought the works to a new generation. Knussen was highly respected as a musical mentor whose support was deeply valued by many British composers, among them Mark-Anthony Turnage and Ryan Wigglesworth.

While his orchestral music is highly inventive, Knussen’s smaller pieces – written in the Nineties and Noughties – are equally compelling

Knussen was born in Glasgow, into a musical family; his father was principal double bass of the London Symphony Orchestra (LSO) for many years. It was the LSO that premiered Knussen’s First Symphony, written when he was 15, which he ended up conducting when their principal conductor István Kertész fell ill. After studying in America at Tanglewood (where he would go on to teach) Knussen composed further large-scale works: a Concerto for Orchestra and two more symphonies, and a handful of chamber works and concertos for horn and violin. His music was a regular fixture at the Proms and at Aldeburgh, where he conducted Harrison Birtwistle’s The Borrower; Knussen was its dedicatee.

While his orchestral music is highly inventive, Knussen’s smaller pieces – written in the Nineties and Noughties – are equally compelling. His Requiem: Songs for Sue (2005-6), a memorial to his wife, who passed away in 2003, is both thoughtful and artistic. Formal recognition of Knussen’s achievements came relatively recently: appointment as CBE and honorary membership of the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1994, honorary membership of the Royal Philharmonic Society in 2002 and its conductor award in 2010, the Ivor Novello classical music award and the Queen’s Medal for Music in 2016.

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Where the Wild Things Are is currently being performed by Deutsche Oper am Rhein at Germany’s Düsseldorf Opera House. Let’s hope we will see wider inclusion of Knussen’s work in British programming in subsequent season announcements.

Image: Oliver Knussen conducting the Chamber Orchestra of Europe, by Mark Allan.

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