During my hiatus from regularly writing here, I missed a significant passing in the musical world – that of Oliver Knussen. Since I first started seriously exploring contemporary music while I was at Cambridge, Knussen has been a constant presence. His death on 5th July last year was a real loss to music, both as a conductor and a composer.
The first piece I remember hearing was the Horn Concerto written in 1994. In its crystalline harmony, glittering instrumentation, and beautifully balanced structure, it is a work that filled me with awe. As with so much of Knussen’s music, it is short but packed with brilliance, each note carefully placed to be both beautiful and structurally vital. You can hear the same delicate care over every moment in Music for a Puppet Court, or his homage to Stravinsky Flourish with Fireworks.
There is a level of care and love about every note that borders on the obsessive. Indeed, Knussen found composition extremely difficult despite his prodigious beginnings. Although it may sound inevitable, most of his music took a great deal of time to craft. And it is perhaps this aspect of him most of all that fascinates me. All his music making – both composition and performance – was always of the greatest craftsmanship.
In conducting, Knussen was fastidious in balancing an orchestra. He was able to hear an extraordinary level of detail not just in terms of wrong notes – and he was phenomenal at this – but in how instruments sounded in relation to each other. Perhaps only Boulez was able to balance a whole orchestra with such skill as Knussen.
I remember watching him rehearse the BBC Symphony Orchestra in a Stravinsky programme and he was able to transform chords from sounding beautiful to sounding like diaphanous, ethereal flashes of colour. He could pick out exactly which timbres needed to resonate with others to emphasise the harmonics in complex, atonal harmonies.
Unsurprisingly, this garnered him a great deal of respect from musicians and though his presence on the podium was not especially dynamic in other respects (predictably given his size and general poor health), he was able to draw spectacular performances in the most complex of pieces.
In person, he was charming and self-effacing, as well as fantastically naughty. He was – like many musicians – delighted to indulge in professional gossip, and he could certainly turn a good tale. He was fond of drink and food too, and not at interested in looking after himself. Curiously, for a somewhat Bacchanalian man, my feeling about his music is that it is rather Apollonian in its disciplined beauty. I always feel that he thinks ‘why say something in four bars when I could do it in one?’ Not for him, the grandiose expositions of Mahler; rather the self-constraint of Wolf or Weber.
It may be that this concision and reluctance to grandstand will keep him from being a regular presence in concert halls across the world. I hope it does not, though. There are few composers from the past century whose music has managed to draw together harmony, melody, and structure in such an elegantly beautiful manner.
So much music since 1910 has been about an explosion of language in which the recreation of a musical grammar is a requirement of every piece. Knussen eloquently solved that problem and produced music in which the connections are always evident, even while not pandering to obvious solutions.
I am sad that there is no more to come; I’m quite sure that there was a wealth of music he still had to write.
But I am also delighted that we have what he did write: music of crystalline beauty that sparkles with brilliance.
I would strongly urge you to go listen to his Horn Concerto, Flourish with Fireworks, and The Way to Castle Yonder if you don’t already know his music. Most streaming services will have at least these pieces.