Oliver Knussen's music packs as much incident and expression into mere minutes than some composers manage in a lifetimeAll articles in this series
Oliver Knussen's huge influence as conductor, teacher, programmer, artistic director, and catalyst for so much of the energy of the contemporary British musical scene can sometimes make you underestimate his real legacy: the music of crystalline concision, complexity, and richness. He has been composing since his teenage years, pieces whose distilled, essential quality is the hard-won prize of a ceaseless creative perfectionism and search for the fundamental rightness of the way one note follows another, one harmony flows into the next, how each detail of his scores relates to every other.
Listen to the the first of the Two Organa, to the opening of the Horn Concerto, the unbounded effervescence of Flourish with Fireworks, and hear what I mean.
This is never music cast on a grand scale. Knussen's symphonies - all of them originally written before he was 30, and the First, when he was 15, which Knussen conducted with the London Symphony Orchestra where his father was a double-bassist - are all under 20 minutes long, his concertos for Horn and Violin play for around 15 minutes, and even his fantasy operas on Maurice Sendak, Where the Wild Things Are and Higglety Pigglety Pop!, are conceived on the concisest possible scale: at 45 minutes and an hour long, each could fit in the pocket of a Wagnerian music drama. But that's the first mistake you can make with Knussen and his music, to confuse this relative smallness of scale with a miniaturism of ambition or achievement. This is music that packs as much incident, information, and expression into mere minutes than some other composers manage in a lifetime.
Knussen is a physically big man, and a big personality too. "I don't know whether it's extremely significant or just something that's completely unresolved inside me," he told me a few years ago, "but I am profoundly drawn to miniature things, and fineness of detail and precision." But there is nothing creatively small about what Knussen's music achieves. Knussen has discovered a musical language that has its roots in the early 20th century modernism that he conducts so virtuosically - Stravinsky, Ravel, Schoenberg, Berg, Britten, Debussy, Scriabin, and other less well-known composers he also advocates, like Liadov or Myaskovsky - but which becomes, through the prism of Knussen's compositional imagination, something completely and irreducibly his own. His friend and colleague Julian Anderson has analysed the technical apparatus that Knussen employs in a brilliant series of articles (he also says that Knussen's language sprang, as if fully-formed, in the Second Symphony, composed when Knussen was still a teenager); but what you can hear immediately in any of his works is a transparency of texture, a luminousness of soundworld, and a sense of a complete world conjured in a minute, a phrase, even a single chord, like the opening moments of the Violin Concerto.
As part of his 60th birthday celebrations, Knussen's operas are about to receive a new production by Netia Jones to open the Aldeburgh Festival, where Knussen was Artistic Director. They are pieces that define something fundamental about his music. His attraction to Sendak's stories fits the character of his own music - fantastical worlds that shimmer darkly under seemingly simple surfaces. Knussen's music opens a Pandora's box of allusions to other magical repertoires - Ravel, Stravinsky, even Mozart - and he makes his musical language so lucid and so flexible, that every moment in each opera can open a window into a new world of feeling, a new moment in the drama, from a dog eating a mop, or the island of the Wild Things.
Yet there has been a price that Knussen has had to pay to produce this brilliant, bejewelled music. There's no more famously self-critical composer: he has had commissioned, but failed to deliver, almost as many pieces as he has actually managed to complete. Composing is both the most natural and the most tortuous thing that Knussen does in his musical life. Yet in recent years, he has written pieces with a new freedom and fluidity: the tragic inspiration but poetic brilliance of his Requiem: Songs for Sue, his wife who died in 2003, was composed in a burst of inspiration ("It seemed to want to be written", Knussen told me in 2006, and "for a while, as I was writing it, I wasn't sure whether it was a piece that actually ought to be let out at all, because it is very personal, and because I didn't want it to be a self-indulgent thing"), the freewheeling finale of the Violin Concerto, the dazzling kaleidoscopes of Cleveland Pictures, and - who knows? - the dynamism of a new piece for piano and orchestra, Interventions, which Peter Serkin will play with Knussen conducting at Aldeburgh.
The only limits to Knussen's music are self-imposed. There is no conductor who is as catholic in their tastes as Knussen, no-one who has been as generous to a generation of younger British composers, and no-one who understands the repertoires of new music as well as he does. What he has already given the world is an output of remarkable, moving refinement; what's to come will only be even more special.
Where The Wild Things AreKnussen and Sendak's fantasy opera - the definitive adaptation of Sendak's book - more imaginative, more engaging, and more subtle than Spike Jonze's film. (At Aldeburgh, then the Barbican in November.)
Horn ConcertoOne of Knussen's orchestral masterpieces, and the most moving, expressive, involving Horn Concerto in the repertoire
CoursingAn early ensemble piece of headlong, teeming energy
Ophelia DancesThe piece that has been inspiring Mark-Anthony Turnage for more than 30 years - and will do you, too
Third SymphonyOne of the largest-scale pieces in the Knussen catalogue, which packs truly staggering, compelling invention into 15 minutes.
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