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Oliver Knussen CBE (born 12 June 1952 in Glasgow, Scotland) is a British composer and conductor.



His father, Stuart Knussen, was principal double bass of the London Symphony Orchestra. He studied composition with John Lambert, between 1963 and 1969 and later received encouragement from Benjamin Britten. He spent several summers studying with Gunther Schuller at Tanglewood in Massachusetts and then in Boston.[1] He later became the Head of Contemporary Music Activities at Tanglewood between 1986 and 1998.

He was married to Sue Knussen, a US-born producer and director of music programmes for BBC television and for the UK's Channel 4 – for which she made Leaving Home a series of seven one-hour programmes, an introduction to 20th Century music, presented by Simon Rattle, winning the 1996 BAFTA award for Best Arts Series.[2] She ran the Los Angeles Philharmonic's education department, in the late 1990s. Oliver and Sue Knussen had a daughter, Sonya, who is a mezzosoprano.

Sue Knussen died of a blood infection in London in 2003. The Sue Knussen Composers Fund (previously, the Sue Knussen Commissioning Fund) "honours her memory and professional legacy...and...commissions works from emerging composers to be performed by contemporary music ensembles worldwide."[3]

Knussen lives in Snape, Suffolk, the composer Benjamin Britten's home and his base during one of his most creative periods.[4] Snape hosts some events in the nearby Aldeburgh Festival at the village's Maltings concert hall and which, since 2003, has been the home of the Snape Proms.

Musical life

He began composing at about the age of six – but it was an ITV programme about his father's work with the London Symphony Orchestra that prompted the commissioning for his first symphony (1966–1967). Aged 15, Knussen stepped in to conduct his symphony's première at the Royal Festival Hall, London, on 7 April 1968 after István Kertész fell ill. After that debut, Daniel Barenboim asked him to conduct the work's first two movements in New York a week later.[5] In this work and his Concerto for Orchestra (1968–1970), he had quickly and fluently absorbed the influences of modernist composers Britten and Berg as well as many mid-century (largely American) symphonists, whilst displaying an unusual flair for pacing and orchestration.[1] It was as early as the Second Symphony (1970–1971), in the words of Julian Anderson, that "Knussen's compositional personality abruptly appeared, fully formed".[6]

Knussen has been Principal Guest Conductor of The Hague's Het Residentie Orkest (Residentie Orchestra) between 1992 and 1996, the Aldeburgh Festival's co-Artistic Director between 1983 and 1998 and the London Sinfonietta's Music Director between 1998 and 2002 – and is now that ensemble's Conductor Laureate.

Since September 2006, Knussen has been Artist-in-Association to the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, a contemporary chamber ensemble.

His major works from the 1980s are his two "children's operas", Where the Wild Things Are and Higglety Pigglety Pop!, both libretti by Maurice Sendak – and based on Sendak's own eponymous children's books.[7]

Knussen wrote his Songs for Sue, a setting of four poems for soprano and 15-piece ensemble, as a memorial tribute to his late wife, and the music received its world première in Chicago in 2006. "...I knew there were a number of Dickinson poems addressed to her sister, Sue, so one week I read all 1,700 poems of Emily Dickinson...and I copied out about 35 of them by hand, Knussen told Tom Service in London's The Guardian[8] "I have no idea where the notes for this piece come from...It seemed to want to be written...I wasn't sure whether it...ought to be let out at all...because I didn't want it to be a self-indulgent thing. But actually it's very restrained. It's not a huge work - about 13 minutes - but it's a big piece emotionally."



Oliver Knussen's works include the following:

  • Hums and Songs of Winnie-the-Pooh Op.6 (1970/83)
  • Second Symphony Op.7 (Margaret Grant Prize, Tanglewood 1970-71)
  • Océan de Terre Op.10 (1972-73)
  • "Music for a Puppet Court" Op.11 (1973/83)
  • Trumpets Op.12 (1975)
  • Ophelia Dances op.13 (Koussevitzky centennial commission, 1975)
  • Triptych (Autumnal Op.14, Cantata Op.15, Sonya's Lullaby Op.16,1975-77)
  • Coursing Op. 17 (1979)
  • Third Symphony Op.18 (1973–79)
  • Where the Wild Things Are" (opera) Op.20 (1979-83)
  • "Higglety Pigglety Pop!" (opera) Op.21 (1984-85 revised 1999)
  • "The Way to Castle Yonder" Op.21a(1988-90)
  • "Flourish with Fireworks" Op.22 (1988 revised 1993)
  • "Four Late Poems and an Epigram of Rilke" Op.23 (1988)
  • Variations" Op.24 (1989)
  • Whitman Settings" Op.25 (1991, orchestrated as Op. 25a, 1992)
  • "Songs without Voices" Op.26 (1991-92)
  • "Two Organa" Op.27 (1994)
  • Horn Concerto Op.28 (1994)
  • Prayer Bell Sketch Op.29 (in memory of Toru Takemitsu, 1997)
  • Violin Concerto Op.30 (2002)
  • Requiem: Songs for Sue Op.33 (2005-6)


  1. ^ a b Julian Anderson. "Knussen, Oliver", Grove Music Online, ed. L. Macy (accessed 14 June 2007), (subscription access).
  2. ^ Sue Knussen – obituary, Variety, 16 April 2003.Accessed on 19 August 2007.
  3. ^ Singsthings, Sonya Knussen's website.Accessed on 19 August 2007.
  4. ^ Benjamin Britten's long association... – John Waddell, on 19 August 2007]
  5. ^ Bryan Northcott, 'Oliver Knussen', The Musical Times, Vol. 120, No. 1639. (Sep., 1979), pp. 729-732
  6. ^ Anderson, Julian, 'The later Music of Oliver Knussen. Catching up with Knussen in his 40th Year', The Musical Times, Vol. 133, No. 1794. (Aug., 1992), pp. 393-394.
  7. ^ Oliver Knussen interview, Classic CD, February 1999.Accessed on 19 August 2007.
  8. ^ I had to write it – G2 section, The Guardian, London, 19 October 2006.Accessed on 20 August 2007.

External links

Preceded by
Markus Stenz
Music Director, London Sinfonietta
Succeeded by
no successor as of 2006


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