The great Oliver Knussen has passed away, aged just 66. Knussen’s influence on the landscape of contemporary music as a conductor and teacher is immeasurable, and though hardly prolific in his output, his compositions – seldom longer than 15 or 20 minutes – have an almost unrivalled intensity and precision. When Anton Webern died tragically before his time, Stravinsky praised a craftsman who “inexorably kept on cutting out his diamonds, his dazzling diamonds, of whose mines he had a perfect knowledge.” We might say the same for Knussen’s ingenious works of compression and transparency. Here are ten of his greatest.

Oliver Knussen
© Mark Allan | BBC

1Where the Wild Things Are! (1979/83)

Knussen’s best known work, and still a fantastical and mysterious masterpiece. His collaboration with Maurice Sendak is a work that is, notionally, for children, though is as complex and condensed a Freudian psycho-drama as any you might find in Alban Berg. The action of the opera takes place in the strange passageway between waking and dreaming, and taps into the primal hunger, fear and fury that we experience as children. These emotional modulations are reflected in the amazing dramatic economy of Knussen’s score. The first minute of the opera is a case in point: Knussen repeats one gnawing, simple chord progression, with a growling bass, but summons an incredible array of colour and feeling in that short, luminous space: mystery, terror, excitement. “Oh please don’t go”, the wild things sing. “We’ll eat you up, we love you so.”

2Coursing: Étude no. 1 (1979)

A piece that expresses Knussen’s admiration for American composer Elliott Carter, commissioned by the virtuosic London Sinfonietta, for whom Knussen would later serve as musical director and would conduct many times on record. Knussen’s legacy as a conductor and champion of contemporary music – and a teacher at the Royal Academy of Music – is as important as his compositional one. Coursing was inspired, Knussen writes, by a trip to Niagara Falls: it opens with a propulsive, erratic unison melody that gradually disperses into contrapuntal adventures amongst the ensemble over the work’s six-minute run.

3Violin Concerto (2002)

Knussen conceived of his Violin Concerto, written for Pinchas Zukerman, as a high-wire act: “At times the violinist resembles a tightrope walker, progressing along a (decidedly unstable) high wire strung across the span that separates the opening and closing sounds of the piece.” The soloist spends much of the piece in the ethereal upper reaches of the violin, or floating harmonics over the orchestra. It is a concerto that relishes in ringing sounds: celesta, bells or the natural resonances of open strings. Zukerman was renowned for his facility for the Romantic violin repertoire, and this is one of Knussen’s more straightforwardly lyrical works: the final movement, a Gigue, seems to channel the boisterous energy of the finale of the famous Beethoven concerto.

4Requiem – Songs for Sue (2006)  

Knussen’s Requiem is intimate and, in his words, “autumnal”. Written in memory of his wife Sue, it is characteristically compressed: 12 minutes of music, which sets the similarly compressed poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke and Emily Dickinson. The orchestral colours are warm but muted: no upper strings, a trio of clarinets (including bass clarinet) and alto flute. The opening is a raw explosion of grief, which transmutes as into a dark-hued and affectionate elegy. This is some of Knussen’s most humane and restrained music.

5Symphony no. 3 (1979)

Knussen was not prolific in his output, and even his heftiest works generally clock in at under 30 minutes. His Symphony no.3 is hardly an exception, at barely a quarter of an hour, which of course means you could comfortably fit the whole thing inside the Scherzo of most Mahler symphonies. There is nothing slight about this symphony in one movement though; the string writing has a ferocious intensity, and Knussen creates churning textures of striking complexity and richness, whose dense layers presage the tectonic movements of Harrison Birtwistle’s seminal Earth Dances, which appeared a few years later.

6Horn Concerto (1994)

Knussen at his most Romantic. The horn writing, from its first entry, has a soaring, Mahlerian lyricism, and is uncannily reminiscent of the opening of Mahler’s First Symphony and the “Nachtmusik” of his seventh, which Knussen explicitly had in mind when writing the concerto. Knussen seemed keen to channel the Gothic sound world of late Mahler, with its eerily distant muted brass, shimmering tremolando string underlays and interstellar horn calls, where material is passed around a substantive ensemble whose massive forces are only infrequently unleashed, albeit to blistering effect.

7Variations for Piano (1989)

Characteristic restraint and intelligence from Knussen in this work for solo piano. This is an identifiably “classical” work, a textbook set of short variations on slight melodic and harmonic gestures. The piece, requiring exacting use of the sustain pedal, makes exquisite use of the ringing upper register of the piano and its ethereal overtones: like much of Knussen’s music it treads a line between method and mystery. It’s also an homage to famous sets of 20th-century piano variations, such as those by Aaron Copland or Schoenberg’s Op.25 Suite for Piano.

8Whitman Settings (1991/2)

Walt Whitman’s poetry is characterised by spun-out, effulgent lines, and his earthiness might make him seem a strange choice for Knussen, whose music is all diaphanous light and shade. But in these settings Knussen takes Whitman’s shorter poems and draws out their mysteriousness and mysticism. Knussen’s orchestral writing has the churning expressionistic intensity of Alban Berg, and features brilliant moments of word-painting for the soprano soloist: “Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars” concludes the first setting with an otherworldly, time-halting stillness.

9Music for a Puppet Court (1983)

Music for a Puppet Court is a set of “puzzles” for double chamber orchestra, dedicated to Peter Maxwell Davies, with its material drawn from the 16th-century composer John Lloyd. The antiphonal arrangement of the two orchestras creates all the kinds of ghostly reflections and disconcerting shadows that Knussen’s music plays with; Knussen’s neoclassical restraint puts one in mind of Anton Webern’s spooky arrangement of Bach’s Musical Offering, or Stravinsky’s ballet Agon. “I am profoundly drawn to miniature things, and fineness of detail and precision”, Knussen remarked in an interview with The Guardian. Here we see Knussen taking musical material of great simplicity and making it gleam, particularly in the “Toyshop Music”.

10Trumpets (1975)

Knussen is better-known for his larger scale works, like the Violin Concerto or his symphonies – partly because of his dazzling use of the colour palette of the symphony and chamber orchestras. But this 1975 work, scored for the unusual combination of three clarinets and soprano, demonstrates his great skill in writing for more restrained and intimate forces. This setting of Georg Trakl’s terrifyingly Expressionist verse is his typically idiosyncratic contribution to the lieder tradition. There is an ingenious claustrophobia to this setting, where the clarinets hang uncomfortably close in the same register, echoing and doubling each other, and threatening to subsume the desperate vocal line in their distinctive timbre – something Knussen warns against in the score itself, making recommendations about the spatial positioning of the musicians (a characteristic feature of his scores). It’s a disconcerting piece, relying on the jarring quality of voice and woodwind, which never quite mesh, and is suspended between the twin poles of delicacy and destructiveness.