Death of a vital British composer, 66

Death of a vital British composer, 66


norman lebrecht

July 09, 2018

Oliver Knussen died yesterday.

No living British composer was untouched by his personality, his kindness and his work.

The son of a London orchestral player, Olly conducted his first symphony with the LSO at age 15. His second symphony was premiered at Tanglewood by Gunther Schuller. The third, and most successful, just 15 minutes long, was taken on diplomatic tours to Moscow and elsewhere.

Two children’s operas – Where the Wild Things Are and Higgledy Piggledy Pop – occupied his middle years.

A combination of persistent ill health and composer’s block caused him to fade from the front ranks of contemporary music. But his conducting ability and an unquenched interest in all new music made him a vital mentor to young composers in his own country and many abroad. He worked often with the Cleveland Orchestra and made recordings for Deutsche Grammophon.

Convivial, curious, charming, Olly will be very widely mourned.

UPDATE: Olly’s last accolade.

UPDATE: Dad wanted me to be a conductor.

WATCH: One of Olly’s last concerts.


  • Rob says:

    Sounds like Maxwell Davies’s St Thomas Wake (1969).

    • Terry Grimley says:

      Oliver Knussen’s Third Symphony sounds like Peter Maxwell Davies’s St Thomas Wake?

      You mean they both sound like modern music?

  • Deborah Mawer says:

    Sad news. There must be a lot of unfinished pieces as he often got stuck towards the end, promising to come back later. I don’t think the piano concerto for Peter Serkin or the piece for the Philadelphia Orchestra were finished.

  • boringfileclerk says:

    A devastating loss for music! He left us too soon.

  • Don Ciccio says:

    Sad news!

    I remember when he conducted the National Symphony in Washington. After a concert there was a discussion with him and one of the composers, Augusta Read Thomas. I was impressed by his enthusiasm and intellectual curiosity.

    RIP Ollie!

    • PaulD says:

      I was at that concert, too. Leila Josefowicz performed Knussen’s violin concerto. I think it was part of a series of contemporary concerts that Knussen led. It was a very fine evening of music.

  • Paul Pellay says:

    He left us far too soon – and with so much music still in him……….Requiescat in Pace.

  • Martin Flowerman says:

    It was amazing to have performed with Ollie at the Cleveland Orchestra. We made some wonderful recordings with him.
    He had that wonderful British sense of humor.
    He will be greatly missed.

  • C S L Parker says:

    A great composer indeed. I studied with himself aged 17 whilst travelling by train from Kettering Northamptonshire England to his flat in West Hampstead London. Thanks to Sir Peter Maxwell Davies. 1978 to 1980……..C S L Parker Ireland 2018 a gifted occassion indeed.

  • V.Lind says:

    He seemed to be friendly with Pinchas Zukerman — in any case he was a welcome guest at the National Arts Centre Orchestra when PZ was there, and I think participated in some new music projects in Ottawa. He was loved there as a friend and mate.

  • Marcus Tristan says:

    A very sad day indeed. We had many happy times in his West Hampstead flat, talking about contemporary music and listening to some of his absolutely vast collection of vinyl records. He had a completely encyclopedic knowledge of all aspects of music and much that I myself know now is thanks to Ollie. He was very diplomatic in his criticisms of my music, when he had any – it was like being admonished by a kind uncle. And he was so generous, showering me with gifts, including many scores of his own music. I am very sad today . . .

  • Charles Coleman says:

    One of my heroes. Knussen’s music was an aural mix of multicolored lights and strong perfume. R.I.P.

  • MacroV says:

    I knew him better as a conductor than as a composer. Saw him once in The Hague leading a program that included Stravinsky’s “La Baiser de la fee.” I thought he was wonderful. And with the London Sinfonietta he made two recordings that I treasure: Henze’s “Ondine” and Britten’s “The Prince of the Pagodas,” the latter of which, while a ballet score, I think would make a wonderful concert work (long concert).

  • robc cowan says:

    My personal anecdote regarding Oliver Knuessen goes back many years. A record shop called Record Hunter opened up on near Waterloo Station. John Goldsmith was the proprietor and one of the lp sets I was on the lookout for was the long-deleted complete Mussorgsky songs with Boris Christoff on HMV. John smiled, ‘you won’t believe this … you just missed it – Oliver Knussen was in and bought it yesterday!’ A day for so later I received a pone call (or did I pop into the shop? I don’t remember). Said John, ‘I told Olly about your passion for the set and because his passion didn’t quite match yours, he brought it back – so here it is!’ I will never forget that act of kindness toward a young nerd (not that I ever met him). I was also chuffed that he seemed to enjoy my radio work but as for him, ‘the best of us’ I’d say, as composer and conductor particularly. His Cleveland Orchestra recording of The Fairy’s Kiss is among the finest ever made , if not THE finest. RIP

    • Martin Flowerman says:

      I agree that Ollie’s recording with TCO of Fairy’s Kiss is terrific. Another great one is “Pictures”, Stokowski transcription. I am honored in that I played double bass in TCO and am on these recordings. I feel so sad for Ollie’s untimely passing. RIP!!

  • John Borstlap says:

    A brilliant conductor who did a lot for the cause of new music in his time. Although one could argue about the nature of much he premiered / conducted, the attitude of desiring to bring scores to life in real performance was rare in post-1945 Europe, and has remained rare as ever.

    I have problems with his own music, but that does not diminish the man’s great qualities.

  • Jeffery Smith says:

    A concert conducted by Oliver Knussen was not one I would miss particularly following Boulez’ death. The clarity of his sound, the enquiring choice of his repertoire – from Percy Grainger to late Stockhausen! His fun!