Oliver Knussen: Dad always wanted me to be a conductor

Oliver Knussen: Dad always wanted me to be a conductor


norman lebrecht

July 09, 2018

In a 60th birthday interview with Fiona Maddocks, the late Oliver Knussen looked back at his early exposure to the London Symphony Orchestra, where his father, Stuart, was  chairman and principal double-bass.

If I never made the decision to be a musician, I did make the active choice of being a composer. Once I was reading music, I began to imitate it. I was a terrible piano student but it was clear I was more keen on making up my own stuff. Dad probably thought it would eventually go away at first. He always wanted me to become a conductor. After a while he asked a couple of people what to do, and they said I’d better have some lessons, so off I went to the Watford School of Music where, luckily, my teacher was John Lambert, who had been a student of Nadia Boulanger. I continued with him privately until I was 16 or 17.

Two things happened in your early-mid teens: you met Britten and your First Symphony [now withdrawn] was performed by the LSO, conducted by you. Were these privileges? Traumas?

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 – of course I was terribly shy – and treated me seriously: was I doing counterpoint? Did I plan my pieces carefully? That kind of thing. He was very good at making you feel what you were doing was important, and as if you might be having the same sort of problems he had. I didn’t have lessons, just one or two meetings of this sort. But he kept a watchful eye from afar. When I arrived at the Festival Hall for the infamous premiere of my symphony he had sent a telegram, and afterwards he 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 really healed, an occurrence I wish would be calmly forgotten and put away. 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 I do think it’s pretty remarkable that a kid of 14 actually wrote such a thing – though it’s VERY withdrawn now.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 very good for me that I heard it – these days one would have sent it off to be done in a workshop, quietly, and that would have been the end of it. But with the LSO it became a nine-day wonder – press photographers on the doorstep next morning and all that. My inclination at such times is to flee…

Read on here.



  • Petros Linardos says:

    Very fascinating interview. Thank you for posting.

  • Hilary says:

    It would be strangely touching to mount a performance of Symphony no.1.

  • Orin O’Brien says:

    I thought Oliver Knussen was a wonderful composer and, although I did not really know him well, a very lovely person. He came to the New York Philharmonic during the 1980’s (?) to conduct one of his operas, and working with him was a joy. I also saw him briefly at Tanglewood. It was very shocking to read that he died:
    I wished that my orchestra had had more opportunity to work with him and play his music. Maybe something can be suggested to remedy this: a performance of some of his work in future seasons?
    With respectful sadness,
    Orin O. (member of N.Y. Philharmonic bass section)

  • Edward Adrian CLARK says:

    The interview with Professor Raymond Holden at the Royal Academy last year revealed to music-loving members of the public such as me that this rightfully pre-eminent composer and supportive conductor was humourous, deeply reflecftive and a vast repository of memories of musicians whose names were familiar to me from my teenage years, many of whom I was able to see and hear when I came as an undergraduate student to London where I have remained 1963 and become a frequent visitor to the Barbican, South Bank Centre and the BBC Proms. W have all lost a significant and humane figure from the world of classical music.

  • Janis Roberts says:

    I didn’t know Olly well, but I remember him as a really kind boy. I was at junior school in Watford with his brother Kenneth, and we lived very near them. I do remember too his lovely dad, Stuart and the wonderful sound he could get from a double bass. What a talented family. He will be much missed.