Faber Music is deeply saddened to announce the death of Oliver Knussen, our beloved House Composer of over forty years, on 8 July.
Knussen was one of the world’s most eminent and influential composer-conductors and leaves behind him a body of work of crystalline concision, complexity and richness. His impact on the musical community – both in the UK and around the world – was extraordinary, and is a testament to his great generosity and curiosity as a musician, as well as his unfailing love and deep knowledge of the art form.
Olly and I became close friends virtually from the moment we joined Faber Music in the late 1970s. I have always loved his music with its radiant harmony, exuberant rhythmical vitality and unsurpassable instrumental mastery. His supreme talents as a conductor exhibited the same attention to detail, depth of intelligence, aural refinement and communicative brilliance. His generosity and openness of spirit has had a crucial impact on music here over the last four decades, in particular by helping so many younger composers to forge their voice, either through his inspirational teaching or by allowing them to hear their first scores played with exemplary focus and energy. I should add that it’s impossible to imagine a more loyal and caring friend; he was also the funniest person I have ever met. It’s painfully hard to accept the parting of this uniquely wonderful figure – but his musical legacy is vast, and it will continue to flourish long into the future.
Olly Knussen taught me that a work takes as long as it takes. He worked only to his own time scale and it was like a diamond forming.
Olly came into my life as a friend rather late. He was known to me as a composer of a younger generation but it was only about 10 years ago we started phoning each other regularly. I found he was one of the few people I could talk to about music. We were on the same wavelength and he had a knowledge of music, particularly contemporary music, that was hard to imagine. There are figures in my life who have appeared to me as angels and he was certainly one of those. Like all of those angels he will be sorely missed.
It’s abundantly clear how Olly radiated great warmth and pure music. His music-making was at the very highest level; an expression of everything that was good in the world. His incredible talent and complete devotion to his art was hugely inspiring and comforting to me. How lucky we were to have known him – those sparkling eyes are unforgettable.
Olly was the greatest musician I’ve ever known. He was a major British composer and conductor – by far the best of his generation, with ears even better than Boulez’s. He was also my closest friend, with such a kind heart, and was like my Dad. The loss to me but also to us all is incalculable.
Who now can I rely on when I have a question that needs answering? Olly was so knowledgeable and wise about so many things, much more than just music (and what was there that he didn’t know about that?). Who else would have introduced me to the writer Harry Mulisch and the film maker Aki Kaurismäki, or told me where to find Joachim Patinir in the Prado? How many people could have directed me to the best Dim Sum restaurant in San Francisco? And even where I thought myself an expert, Olly could shame me by finding a wine that I hadn’t known about. It’s impossible to be objective about the loss of someone who was a friend of mine for more than 40 years. A great musician, yes, it hardly needs saying, but I can only think of Robert Craft’s touching words after the death of Stravinsky. ‘We do not want him to be with Bach and Mozart as commentators and messages of condolence are saying. We want him in the next room, frail and weak as he was, but wonderfully alive... I cannot believe and cannot accept that he is not and will never again be there.’ In the late 1970s I helped with the completion of Olly’s Third Symphony, a race against time. The perfectionism which so often led to crises before a première was, when applied to Olly’s work as a conductor, a completely different experience. We worked together on many recordings, and if it was scary to be producer for someone whose ears were incomparably better than mine, it was also immensely rewarding. Watching him in rehearsal left you staggered by the precision he aimed at, and usually achieved, although it was rarely entirely to his satisfaction. Of course, like any powerful personality, he could be difficult. During the composition course which we ran together for 25 years at Aldeburgh, where he was an irreplaceable mentor to so many young composers, our different approach might lead to minor clashes. He would occasionally call me a control freak – it takes one to know one! But everything would be resolved over a leisurely evening meal. Similarly the many long evenings he spent at our house were always a delight. What a privilege to have had a part to play in such a remarkable life. Others will write about his music for years to come, and so will I. But for now all I want to do is express gratitude for an exceptional life that was far too short. He still had so much to say, and our own lives are so much diminished by his absence.
Oliver Knussen was the gentle giant of new music, a man of unique abilities, infinite tact, huge charm and great humour. In his beautiful and humane output he showed that anything from an expressionist poem by Trakl to a dog eating a mop may become great and memorable music for anyone who cares to listen. His conducting was likewise broad – who else could interpret Birtwistle, Respighi, Feldman, Busoni, Mussorgsky and Carter with equal brilliance? To many of us, he was also a dear friend who surmounted many difficulties with incredible bravery, never losing his zest for life. He wore his genius lightly – he would have guffawed at the notion he was one. But he was, and his extraordinary musical legacy places him in the company of the greatest creative figures of the past sixty years.
It was an immense privilege to work alongside a mind as fine as Olly’s. It had its challenges too, of course. It was natural that Olly’s exacting standards for himself would be expected of those working on his music. When Olly proudly brought in the manuscript of Prayer Bell Sketch he was almost embarrassed by the trouble its notation had given him. ‘It’s only a piano piece,’ he said. ‘But that’s the most complex notation of all’, was my reply. There could be no greater misnomer than ‘sketch’ for the customary fastidious and exquisite pencil manuscript and its beautifully-wrought notation. Olly relished the intricacies of notation and would expect the appearance of his manuscripts to be replicated in the typesetting – quite a challenge to engravers and, more recently, to the software. Layout and spacing on the page was an obsession and the exquisitely beautiful notational spacing in the manuscripts set the standard to be followed in the published scores. Each page was examined fastidiously until every piece of spacing met with his approval. In 1989, Olly himself asked that the last remaining plate-engraver in the UK, Jack Thompson, engrave his Rilke settings. Four Late Poems and an Epigram became the last Faber Music publication to be traditionally engraved. Editing the content was virtually out of the question – but rarely needed. When once challenged over the immense detail in his scores, Olly faxed by return two melodic lines picked from Tchaikovsky’s 5th Symphony. ‘As specific as anything these days’, was his reply, ‘Perhaps the problem is that some people aren’t specific enough!’ Editorial changes would not go unnoticed: regrouping a pair of rests could constitute ‘recomposing’. Olly was never happier than when we were probing into the intricacies of his manuscript. He loved his scores when they were published, and told us he slept with both the Violin Concerto and the Higglety, Pigglety, Pop! full score under his pillow when he received his newly-published copies. Olly’s talent for storing his pieces in his head, then scoring an orchestral piece vertically, bar by bar, usually in the early hours, was legendary. Rarely, if ever, was anything found to be out of place on the page – and as is reflected in the exquisite beauty and quality of the music itself.