Tuesday, 10 July 2018


Oliver Knussen has died, and I have been listening to and reading tributes to him.  I was also listening to some of his works: the Third Symphony (1979), which may have been the first of his I ever heard, in my early years in London, and the lovely Ophelia's Last Dance (2010), which, as it turns out, was originally started in 1974, a melody excluded from that Third Symphony. You can listen to that here as you read this.

I've always liked Knussen the composer more than loved him, but listening to Huw Watkins playing solo piano on Ophelia's put me in mind of Elliott Carter, whose work I do love. This should not be too surprising: Knussen's first composition teacher was John Lambert, who like Carter studied under Nadia Boulanger. What is more noteworthy, if not surprising, is how energetically Knussen promoted Carter's work. As a conductor he has recorded virtually all of Carter's orchestral works, and always with a keen feel for their heart as much as their composition.

I went to a couple of birthday celebration concerts  for Carter in London, his 80th and 90th, if I remember correctly, each time thinking this would be a remarkable last chance to see him in person. But I also went to the Barbican in January 2006, for one of the BBC's 'Get Carter' concerts, and heard Knussen conduct the Clarinet Concerto and the brilliant Double Concerto for harpsichord and piano and two chamber orchestras. I seem to recall Knussen introducing the show on stage, and Carter at 98 indicating his approval. I also recall how the movement of the players reflected the movement of the sounds--something which helped my companion appreciate what she first heard as cacophony.

But as I said, Knussen had a rare understanding of  Carter. Two years after that Barbican concert, Carter turned 100 (the photo above come from his 100th birthday concert in New York) and Knussen wrote an appreciation which began:

    Elliott Carter, 100 in December, was born the day after Messiaen, but he sounds younger - his music has yet to sink in. It bears comparison with Beckett’s plays: phrases, meaningful in themselves, relate to each other only in their simultaneity. Rhythms are spasmodic, while held chords of vibrant beauty colour kaleidoscopic scenes that are rich with turbulent activity.

As I wrote this I listened to Knussen conduct Carter's Concerto For Orchestra with the Boston Symphony at Tanglewood, you can find it here, the famous concert where a storm raged outside while the music which Carter said as inspired by Saint-John Perse poem 'Vents' (winds) played on. And Knussen, looking for all the world like a cross between Orson Welles and Chuck Blazer, never missed a beat. It reminded me that Knussen was a child prodigy, composing and conducting when he was just 15. Carter was more of a slow developer, but he lived to be 103, and was composing almost til the end. Knussen died much to soon; his own music and his wonderful appreciation for the music of others will be sorely missed.

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