Obituary: Oliver Knussen (1952–2018)

The LSO is saddened to hear the news of the sudden death of composer and conductor Oliver Knussen on 8 July 2018. He was 66.

One of the most influential and most performed composers of this generation, Knussen was also a noted conductor and festival artistic director, and hugely supportive of younger British composers such as Mark-Anthony Turnage, Helen Grime, George Benjamin and Julian Anderson. His founding and leadership with Colin Matthews of the Britten-Pears Young Artists Contemporary Composition and Performance courses have nurtured hundreds more.

Olly, as he was known to pretty much everyone, was brought up in the orchestra – this orchestra, in fact, as his father Stuart was the LSO's Principal Double Bass from 1958 to 1972. Stuart was a prominent figure, a member of the Board of Directors and later Chairman of the Orchestra from 1968–72. This meant that the young Olly spent his formative years with the great musicians of the day, immersed in orchestral life.

1963 LSO Board of Directors Weber Griffiths Murray Steadman Sanders Tuckwell Fleischmann Winfield Castle KnussenThe LSO Board of Directors, 1963. Stuart Knussen is on the right of the picture. (LSO Archive)

"My father was principal double bass of the London Symphony Orchestra for most of my childhood and there were always musicians dropping in. The LSO used to record for the Mercury label at Watford Town Hall which was close by us so some of them would come back at lunchtime. That orchestra was extraordinary at that time, with players like Barry Tuckwell (horn), who was our lodger for a while, Gervase de Peyer (clarinet), Hugh Maguire, Erich Gruenberg (leaders) and, as leader of the seconds, Neville Marriner. So it was part of my life." he said in an interview with Fiona Maddocks in 2012.

Aged 15 Olly conducted the world premiere of his First Symphony with the LSO – on 7 April 1968 at the Royal Festival Hall (in a programme that also included Britten's Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes, Britten later offering Olly his first commission for the Aldeburgh Festival the following year) – beginning his composing career that provided relatively few works but ones of the highest order: "Each work was a miracle of conciseness and packed in more musical content than many composers managed to include in pieces five times as long" says Andrew Clements in his tribute in the Guardian.

Oliver Knussen aged 15 with his First Symphony
The 15-year-old Oliver Knussen with his First Symphony (from the Daily Mail)

He did, however, later withdraw the work: "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."

Despite this infamous (in his words!) start, there were several first performances of Knussen works given by the LSO, including Tributum and Concerto for Orchestra the very next year in 1969, again with the composer conducting, Flourish with Fireworks in 1988 (written for Michael Tilson Thomas' first concert as LSO Principal Conductor), and in 1991 the first UK performance of the complete opera Higglety Pigglety Pop! based on the children's book by Maurice Sendak, now one of his most treasured works along with its double-bill companion Where The Wild Things Are.

Most recently we were delighted to be able to open Sir Simon Rattle's inaugural season as Music Director with Knussen's Third Symphony (dedicated in 1979 to our former Principal Conductor and current Conductor Laureate Michael Tilson Thomas) in an all-British programme, alongside works by Helen Grime, Thomas Adès, Harrison Birtwistle and Elgar.

The many awards with which he was bestowed – a CBE in 1994, an Ivor Novello Award for Classical Music, the ISM Distinguished Musician Award and the 2015 Queen’s Medal for Music – were augmented by an honorary doctorate from the Royal Academy of Music only last week. He was associated with many musical organisations including the BBC Symphony Orchestra, London Sinfonietta, Tanglewood Festival, Birmingham Contemporary Music Group and Aldeburgh Festival, in his adopted home town, of which he was Artistic Director for 15 years from 1983–98.

He will be very much missed by everyone in the music world, and his sudden death leaves a big hole in British musical life. The LSO sends its sympathies to his family and friends at this sad time.