Oliver Knussen: Among the most influential composers of his generation

The ‘Where the Wild Things Are’ composer, conductor and mentor has died at 66

The British composer Oliver Knussen, who leaped to fame at 15 conducting the London Symphony Orchestra in his First Symphony, created a wild rumpus of an opera out of Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are, and championed contemporary composers as a conductor and mentor, died on Sunday, at the age of 66.

His death was announced by his publisher, Faber Music. The company did not specify the cause, but Knussen had battled health problems for years. A bear of a man who was sometimes likened to one of Sendak’s Wild Things, Knussen was among the most influential British composers of his generation. His output was not huge – he became known for composing slowly, and missing deadlines – but he leaves behind a catalogue of finely wrought works that, while rooted in 20th-century modernism, are beholden to no school but his own.

He has had a fertilising and energising effect on the whole of British music for the last 40 years

Many are miniatures or small of scale; even his Symphony No 3, one of his most acclaimed works for full orchestra, clocks in at a swift 15 minutes. But they are intricate, and densely packed with rich detail: music from concentrate. His influence extended far beyond his own pieces. He was also a respected conductor who mentored and championed composers, including during stints as artistic director of Aldeburgh Festival, in Britain, and as head of contemporary music at Tanglewood Music Center, the summer academy of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, from 1986 to 1993.

“He has had a fertilising and energising effect on the whole of British music for the last 40 years,” the composer George Benjamin, a long-time friend and colleague, says. “We have a lively and varied contemporary music world here in the UK, and a lot of it is owed to him, because of the immensely generous encouragement he gave to generations and generations of composers.”


Stuart Oliver Knussen was born into a musical family in Glasgow, Scotland, on June 12th, 1952. His father, Stuart, was the principal double bassist of the London Symphony, giving Knussen access as a boy to many of the leading figures in the British music world, including the eminent composer Benjamin Britten.

"He invited me to tea – of course I was terribly shy – and treated me seriously," Knussen said of Britten in an interview with the Guardian in 2012. "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."

It was through his father that Knussen got his first big breakthrough: the London Symphony’s performance of his Symphony No 1, in 1968. He was not originally scheduled to conduct the piece, but he stepped in when the scheduled conductor, Istvan Kertesz, fell ill. His achievement drew headlines around the world and made him an overnight sensation.

“I don’t like all this prodigy rubbish,” he said at the time. “I just started early.” His precocious success, he later decided, was a double-edged sword. “It became a nine-day wonder – press photographers on the doorstep next morning and all that,” he said. He withdrew from the limelight and went to Tanglewood to work on his craft, and to study with the composer Gunther Schuller. (He eventually withdrew that youthful First Symphony.)

Knussen's style was eclectic but precise. Some works, like Hums and Songs of Winnie-the-Pooh, for soprano and chamber ensemble, were whimsical. Others were weighty; his Second Symphony was a song cycle to texts by Georg Trakl and Sylvia Plath. Some subjects he returned to over the years: decades after writing Ophelia Dances (1975), a Schumannesque ensemble piece, he refashioned an unused melody into the piano work Ophelia's Last Dance (2010).

A piece wants to be what it wants to be, and the few times I've forced it to be something else to meet a deadline, I've regretted it

As he grew older he developed a reputation for perfectionism that sometimes meant he did not deliver commissions on time. "A piece wants to be what it wants to be, and the few times I've forced it to be something else to meet a deadline, I've regretted it," he told the San Francisco Chronicle.

One of his most beloved works was Where the Wild Things Are, which he continued revising after its premiere in 1980 and which he paired with a subsequent opera also based on Sendak, Higglety Pigglety Pop! The diptych originated with a phone call from Sendak that began with a quiz. Sendak asked, "Can we just start by me asking you what you think is the best children's opera ever written?"

"I said, 'The second act of Boris Godunov,' " Knussen recalled, eschewing the usual kiddie fare for Mussorgsky's epic of intrigue and murder. "He said, 'Right answer', and from that point on we became very close."

Just as Britten had taken Knussen seriously when he was young, he became a dedicated mentor to young composers. Mark-Anthony Turnage, composer of the opera Anna Nicole, says Knussen had given him much-needed confidence. "The teachers I had after him were a huge disappointment, because he was so thorough."

Knussen is survived by a daughter, Sonya, a mezzo-soprano, and a brother, Kenneth. His wife, Sue Knussen, a musician and director, died in 2003; they had separated but remained close. He wrote Requiem – Songs for Sue for her in 2006, after he had been hospitalised for what was described in the media as an unspecified "major illness".

For a while after that hospitalisation, Knussen said, he found it difficult to listen to music, let alone write it. But he was drawn back by Stravinsky and Berg, whose works he dived into. "Listening in that kind of depth has left an enormous mark on the music I've written since," he told the Guardian. "And I hope I can keep going that way." – New York Times