Oliver Knussen (1952 – 2018)

Today has been a momentous day. First the resignation of the Brexit Secretary David Davis. Later, the announcement that Boris Johnson has turned his back on his responsibilities as Foreign Secretary. Tsk.

Amid such a febrile atmophere, the death of a much-loved composer could have struggled to gain attention. Fortunately Oliver Knussen benefited from the UK’s newest official classical music Death Correspondent breaking the news.

I was surprised just like everyone else. I’m not entirely sure I was especially sad. That’s not to say I am a cold-hearted bastard. Of course I’m not. I’m an emotional sort. No really, I am.

Here’s the thing about Knussen’s music. I never listened to it. That’s (partly) why I didn’t especially feel an overwhelming need to signal my sadness at his untimely death (and really, 66 is no age to pass away) like so many others did today. 

But I listen to his music now – his third symphony, for example – and feel like I’m discovering something new and exciting. So too the horn concerto and the violin concerto.

Was it ever so that the death of someone highly regarded triggers a moment when the rest of us ill-informed individuals suddenly embark on an all-too-late journey of discovery?

I have negative associations with Knussen’s music, wholly brought about by one interaction I had with him back in 1996. 

Back then, 24 years old, I was working at the Britten-Pears School for Advanced Musical Studies. All of us on the administration team had registered the surprising lack of applicants for the then three-year-old Contemporary Music and Composition Course led by Olly and (if I recall correctly) Colin Matthews.

That year’s applications had been collated – CVs, cassettes, and aspiration – and put in a box formerly occupied by five reims of photocopier paper.

The Director of the School charged me with delivering the ‘shortlist’ to Olly’s house somewhere in Snape. I drove up towards what looked like a delightfully cosy-looking property. I got out of the car and handed over a box of applications.

“Not very much to choose from in there, is there?” Olly said to me as I handed over the box like it was a goblet of communion wine.

The tone of his voice made me think he was unimpressed with the applications (none of which he’d yet seen), displeased with me, or both.

Sure, reading it back that doesn’t sound like much to write about. But the truth is that I recall driving away terrified by the exchange. Had Olly regarded me as personally responsible for the assumed lack of talent present in the box I’d handed over? What did he expect me to magic up? What did I know? Why was I responsible for this? Why hadn’t Kathy delivered the applications? She was the Director after all.

Olly appeared as an other-worldly man – tall, imposing and intimidating. People spoke about Olly, but I never saw people speak with him. His knowledge, experience and musical appreciation presented itself as uncompromising and, for me at least, massively intimidating. 

Today I understand Olly Knussen died at the age of 66. That means that when I delivered those applications to his house, he was the same age then as I am now. 

The feelings which arose have resulted in me avoiding his music for the past twenty-odd years. I’ve looked on the love expressed for him ever since, and especially today, with an uneasy kind of confusion. 

I am surprised to learn of his death. I’m not sure I’m saddened yet. I get that he meant a tremendous amount to many many people. What saddens me right now is not understanding what our original exchange was really about, and not beginning to appreciate his writing until now.

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