Remembering Oliver Knussen

Oliver Knussen, the influential British composer, conductor, and teacher passed away last Sunday. He was 66.

As a conductor and teacher, Knussen will be remembered for his associations with Tanglewood (where he served as head of contemporary music activities between 1986 and 1993), the Aldeburgh Festival, the London Sinfonietta, and the BBC Symphony Orchestra, among other organizations. In a 2005 San Francisco Chronicle interview, Knussen talked about his life in music, including his aversion to composing up against deadlines.

Earlier in the week, renowned contemporary music conductor and composer Brad Lubman recalled his association with Oliver Knussen in a Facebook tribute. As a student at the Eastman School, I was fortunate to play frequently under Lubman’s baton. He granted permission for a reprint of his eloquent tribute here:

Thinking back on many wonderful things about Oliver Knussen:

He had this incredible knack for being able to say two or three things to an orchestra or ensemble after only playing a few minutes at the first rehearsal, that would then enable the orchestra to understand exactly what would make things sound immediately better. He would make just a few comments and the orchestra would then grasp the style and then proceed to polish and refine things right away. With clear, precise, and musical rehearsal technique and baton technique, Olly would achieve the greatest results. It was a miracle to watch, especially with the fellows of the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra; he would get the most amazing results in no time at all.

He would look through any score and be able to sum up what the piece was about, where the trickier parts might be, what would need more rehearsal time, what would come together easily…..he just seemed to be able to know everything at just a glance.

He was able to objectively guide a young composer to find ways in which said composer could find their voice, or become themselves. He did this with the greatest amount of support and enthusiasm, always maintaining the most positive atmosphere.

He had a way of finding the most interesting connections amongst the greatest variety of repertoire, or disparate groups of composers, he would find new ways of looking at things, different ways to perceive things, different aspects to learn or discover. His insatiable curiosity for discovery was infectious.

He had multitudes of great stories, always intriguing, amusing, and humorous.

He could hear anything and everything in any musical texture. Astounding ears!

His wrote music which is utterly mesmerizing, made from the most carefully wrought jewel-like textures, filled with magic, child-like wonder, and the most amazing colors, the most wondrous things you could imagine.

Where the Wild Things Are, Op. 20

Oliver Knussen collaborated with Maurice Sendak on two one-act fantasy operas, Where the Wild Things Are (1983), and Higglety Pigglety Pop! (1985). In a 1990 Los Angeles Times interview, Knussen observed that the “advanced” harmonic language of the works were more readily accepted by children than some adults.

Where the Wild Things Are is filled with musical quotations, including Debussy’s La boîte à joujoux and the “Coronation Scene” from Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov. Echoes of Boris Godunov’s augmented-fourth bell motive run throughout Where the Wild Things Are. The reference becomes an inside joke in the opera’s own “Coronation Scene” in which The Wild Things declare the boy, Max, to be their king.

Here is the first Sea Interlude from Where the Wild Things Are- perhaps a nod to Knussen’s early mentor, Benjamin Britten:

Prayer Bell Sketch, Op. 29

Prayer Bell Sketch for solo piano was written in three days following the 1996 death of the Japanese composer, Toru Takemitsu. The elegy ventures into the hazy atmospheric sound world Takemitsu frequently inhabited. As with the final bars of Where the Wild Things Are, the concluding moments of this piece seem to evaporate suddenly.

Violin Concerto, Op. 30

Here is the haunting second movement, Aria, of Knussen’s Violin Concerto, written during the winter of 2001 and spring of 2002 for Pinchas Zukerman and a joint commission between the Pittsburgh Symphony and Philadelphia Orchestra.

Symphony No. 3

The voices of the orchestra spring to life as “wild things” and embark on an adventure-filled romp in Knussen’s Third Symphony, completed in 1979. In its final moments, this fifteen-minute-long symphony moves into more sombre territory- something akin to the lengthening shadows and fading light of late afternoon:


  • Knussen: Where the Wild Things Are, Fantasy Opera in Nine Scenes, Op. 20, Oliver Knussen, London Sinfonietta Amazon
  • Knussen: Prayer Bell Sketch, Op. 29, Ryan Wigglesworth Amazon
  • Knussen, Violin Concerto, Op. 30, Leila Josefowicz, BBC Symphony Orchestra Amazon
  • Knussen: Symphony No. 3, Philharmonia Orchestra, Michael Tilson Thomas Amazon
  • Oliver Knussen conducts Busoni, Brahms, and Knussen (live concert)

About Timothy Judd

A native of Upstate New York, Timothy Judd has been a member of the Richmond Symphony violin section since 2001. He is a graduate of the Eastman School of Music where he earned the degrees Bachelor of Music and Master of Music, studying with world renowned Ukrainian-American violinist Oleh Krysa.

The son of public school music educators, Timothy Judd began violin lessons at the age of four through Eastman’s Community Education Division. He was a student of Anastasia Jempelis, one of the earliest champions of the Suzuki method in the United States.

A passionate teacher, Mr. Judd has maintained a private violin studio in the Richmond area since 2002 and has been active coaching chamber music and numerous youth orchestra sectionals.

In his free time, Timothy Judd enjoys working out with Richmond’s popular SEAL Team Physical Training program.

3 thoughts on “Remembering Oliver Knussen”

  1. I just witnessed a performance of Ollie’s “Prayer Bell Sketch”, played as an encore, on a program live-streamed from Berlin’s Philharmonie concert hall. What a mesmerizing piece, one of the most beautiful, and haunting piano works I’ve ever heard.

    I, too, had the opportunity to work with the great OK at Tanglewood, back in 1981 and 82, as a fellow in the TMC (back then called the Berkshire Music Center). The orchestra played his third Symphony then. He and I were born only weeks apart in 1952. I felt honored to be his contemporary.

    His music so deserves much more play than it gets today. The rich, ringing sonorities and harmonies, the melodic invention, the rhythmic spirit and energy, are all facets of his music that could easily have wider appeal. It is a tragedy, to me, that today’s music machine, at least in America, churns out so much repetition of the tried and true–almost indoctrinating the public into accepting only that which they already know. The excitement of discovery of the NEW seems to be gone for even regular symphonic concert attendees.

    The summary dismissal by listeners of anything new, means that even the very best of the most recent music gets lumped in with all those other new pieces, and deemed not worthy of our attention. And it certainly does not help that few conductors have taken on the responsibility of selecting and bringing those greatest-of-the-new works into the repertoires of their orchestras. That disappeared in the 50’s. Koussevitsky, in Boston, set the standard in that regard. Munch following also did to a lesser extent, and Leinsdorf a bit less so. But there are still examples. It is little known that in the case of Bartok’s (perhaps now too often played, where a piece like Hindemith’s Mathis der Maler–for example–might go) Concerto for Orchestra, that it was Leinsdorf, whose repeat performances of that work brought it into greater acceptance, not Koussevitsky (who commissioned it and gave its first performances).

    But I digress.

    Olly’s work is a cornerstone of my CD collection, with music of the Brits taking much shelf space. I had hopes for a more comprehensive retrospective of his music when he passed away, at least at Tanglewood, where he was director of contemporary music for many years.

    To reinforce what Brad Lubman wrote about him as a conductor, I recall an Elliott Carter festival that James Levine had programmed one year. We were to repeat Boston performances at Tanglewood the following summer. Levine fell ill suddenly and Olly stepped to conduct Carter’s massive Sinfonia. Olly found so much more music, and beauty, in that sprawling three movement work than Levine had. It was a far better performance.

    He was, quite simply, the most brilliant musician I ever had the privilege of working with. And self effacing, to boot. Having both Gunther Schuller and Oliver Knussen together in those years I was a Fellow, made that time an unparalleled musical experience for a budding orchestra bassist.


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