Though it’s a cliché to refer to someone of such physical and intellectual stature as a giant, the British conductor and composer Oliver Knussen really was one. He played up to this notion, of course: how else to explain his fascination with tiny crankshaft music boxes, which he’d loom over, Gulliver captivated by the toys of Lilliput, winding tinkly sounds out of them? His music also seemed too intricate for such a huge frame. Whereas Gustav Mahler disguised his intricacy amidst vast orchestral textures, Knussen laid out everything in plain view, each component precarious, vulnerable, exposed. In Ophelia Dances (1975) he created from just nine players the most perfect pen sketch of Polonius’s poor, broken daughter as she spirals into radiant madness following her father’s murder.
This same quality characterized Knussen’s conducting, which was of such small, spare gestures that orchestras would learn to breathe with him, rather than respond to his short physical commands, and thus produce a performance from the inside out. In rehearsal he could hear anything – like Pierre Boulez, like Thomas Adès – and would tell a beleaguered horn player in a hopelessly complex new work that he was off by a semitone in the middle of some muddy texture. Conducting was about solving problems and best representing what was in the composer’s mind, which, after all, didn’t always make it to paper, let alone performance. In rehearsals he’d fiercely bark orders, the task at hand too urgent to lose time amidst excessive pleasantries.
Knussen has died way too young (66), yet simultaneously he seems to have been around forever. The key to this is a milestone he passed earlier this year: it’s 50 years since he stepped in to conduct the London Symphony Orchestra in a performance of his first symphony (István Kertész having withdrawn through illness). After this he never seemed to stop. And 50 years is a long time in which to compose, conduct, teach a generation or two of young composers, direct festivals, affiliate himself with ensembles and organizations – the Tanglewood Festival, the BBC Symphony Orchestra, the Aldeburgh Festival, the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, the London Sinfonietta, the Royal Academy of Music – and think about the way music should be programmed and performed.
His perfectionism was admirable, yet a wearisome burden. As deadlines came and went friends learned not to ask how close he was to finishing or what he would move on to next; a careless word could jinx an already fraught process. So, people stepped gingerly around him, determined not to be the one who scuppered whatever astonishing idea was occupying him, hiding disappointment when a replacement work was announced. This perfectionism governed the countless premieres he oversaw as conductor. At the Aldeburgh Festival he’d often get to the end of a piece and start it again – either for the sheer hell of it, for the great benefit that a quick repeat would be to the young composer listening who was slowly building up flying hours, or because that great ear of his had been left wanting.
It is easy to despair at the works he didn’t write: it is the same feeling we have about Benjamin Britten, who was a sweet yet exacting mentor to the adolescent Knussen and whose early death robbed us of much great music. Who wouldn’t have loved to have heard the piano concerto Knussen sketched and intended for his friend the pianist Peter Serkin? Or another opera, perhaps to complement the comic-dark world of childhood he explored so surehandedly in Higglety Pigglety Pop! (1985) and Where the Wild Things Are (1983)? Yet, the scarcity of scores lent the music he completed an especially ephemeral quality. It meant that a Knussen performance or premiere was a big deal – a chance to enter the mind of this singular, brilliant man, conscious that the sounds we encountered, the images we saw, would be gone as quickly as they came, that we must do our best to hold on to them for as long as possible.
Knussen could tell fabulous, complex stories, which threaded together most of the main characters in the unwieldy history of art music in Britain and America in the second half of the 20th century and the early decades of the next. My favourite is of him standing next to Leonard Bernstein at a urinal in Tanglewood, in that moment extracting from him a commitment to come to Snape Maltings – the beautiful concert hall Britten built in 1967 and which subsequently hosted many wonderful Knussen performances – to conduct Peter Grimes (1945). It was an opera Bernstein had presided over at Tanglewood when the piece was only a year old, Bernstein only 27. But before he could make good his promise Bernstein died – also too young – and this inspired idea came to nothing. And now Knussen is gone too and the seemingly out-of-place delicacy of this towering man has disappeared with him. Or not quite, for he has left behind a body of works that pulse and glow and will continue to defy the stupefied and sad obituaries his death has prompted.
Main image: Oliver Knussen, 1994. Courtesy: Redferns and Getty Images; photograph: Frans Schellekens
Paul Kildea is a conductor and writer and former artistic director of Wigmore Hall, London, UK. His most recent book, Chopin’s Piano: A Journey Through Romanticism (2018) is published by Penguin/Allen Lane.