The son of an orchestral bass player, Oliver Knussen was born in Glasgow in 1952, studied composition in London with John Lambert from 1963, and conducted the London Symphony Orchestra in his own First Symphony when he was 15. He then studied with Gunther Schuller at Tanglewood in the early 1970s, initiating strong connections, personal and musical, with the United States. (Three of the five works on this evening’s program were written for U. S. institutions.)
Emerging in the 1980s as a conductor with striking gifts for clarity and form, especially in music from Stravinsky on, he began an association with the Aldeburgh Festival in 1983 (he later moved to the area) and became artistic director of the London Sinfonietta (1998-2002). He has also worked regularly with the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group and the BBC Symphony Orchestra, and as a guest conductor with the Cleveland Orchestra, the Chicago Symphony, and the New York Philharmonic.
His precocity as a composer was deceptive: many of his works have taken a long time to complete—not because they are long in duration, for often they are not, but by reason of his extreme fastidiousness, which has the beneficial effect of resulting in music that is exact and brilliant as well as intensely colored and fantastical. A startling cascade of pieces from his teens, including his Second Symphony (1970-71), with solo high soprano, was followed by much slower progress on his Third Symphony (1973-79), which, however, proved his command of large-scale continuity, backed by non-standard but still powerfully functioning harmonic energies. During the next decade or so he was largely occupied with two operas after children’s books by Maurice Sendak: Where the Wild Things Are (1979-83) and Higglety Pigglety Pop! (1984-90). Since then his biggest works have been concertos for horn (1994) and violin (2002).
Ophelia Dances, Book 1, Op. 13 (1975)
Commissioned by the Koussevitzky Foundation for the Chamber Music Society, this eight-minute score is headed with some of the lines from Hamlet in which Gertrude describes the death of Ophelia, decked with “fantastic garlands” and singing “snatches of old tunes.” The garlands are certainly there in the braids of lively instrumental filigree, while the tunes are those that lay behind Schumann’s Carnaval. Knussen prefaces the score with two of the “sphinxes” Schumann placed over his work: mottos comprising the notes A-E flat-C-B and A flat-C-B (or in German nomenclature A-Es-C-H and As-CH, representing Asch, the home town of the Romantic composer’s sweetheart of the time). These are the essential harmonies—the hums—out of which the garlands grow.
A brief introduction, “Tranquillo ma scorrevole,” sets the sphinxes out for two groups: piano with flute and clarinet, and strings plus celesta. The hitherto silent English horn then leads the first dance-song, “Calmo, quasi improvvisando,” after which the flute has principal position in an “Allegretto leggiero.” With a change more of tone than tempo, the horn then interrupts to begin a sequence as long as the previous two, “Andante scherzando.” Exploding out of the climax comes a cadenza for the celesta, followed by a horn song remembering the sphinxes.
Secret Psalm (1990, revised 2003)
This short piece for solo violin was originally written, Knussen has said, “for a memorial concert for Michael Vyner (1943-1989), Artistic Director of the London Sinfonietta, who for many years promoted new music with great flair. He began life as a violinist, and privately confessed that his favorite music was the slow movement of one of the great war horses of the concerto repertory—the starting point for the three ‘verses’ of this short meditation, which also sets, wordlessly, an appropriate text.” The three verses all rhyme, and the rhyme is included also in the middle of the last, which goes on into a few measures of adagio melody that transform the cadence.
Hums and Songs of Winnie-the-Pooh, Op. 6 (1970, revised 1983)
3. The Hundred Acre Wood (Nocturne)
3a. Piglet Meets a Heffalump
4. Hum, continued, and Little Nonsense Song
6. Vocalise (Climbing the Tree)
II. Bee Piece
III. Cloud Piece
Long before he set tales by Maurice Sendak to music, Knussen had proved himself an expert composer of music for former children with this revisiting of the classic by A. A. Milne. It is, he has said, “a sequence of faded snap-shots and reflections, by an unwilling grown-up, on things remembered from the book, and on what those things meant to him as a child. So the piece is whimsical: it hops back and forth between Pooh-like expressions and the inner world of a child just after the light is switched off, following no particular pattern—I allowed the music to take itself where it wanted to go. The two worlds meet in the last song during which, perhaps, the child falls asleep.”
The subject of the reverie is the episode in which Pooh, with the aid of a balloon, lifts off in an effort to raid the Hunny Tree. His two songs are included in the second and third movements, with music respectively apian and nebulous. The first movement travels toward the scene with musings on Mr. Sanders (the presumed previous occupant of Pooh’s house), hums, and songlets, and miniature tone poems featuring the contrabass clarinet to evoke the Hundred Acre Wood and a heffalump.
Songs without Voices, Op. 26 (1991-2)
I. Fantastico (Winter’s Foil)
II. Maestoso (Prairie Sunset)
III. Leggiero (First Dandelion)
IV. Adagio (Elegiac Arabesques)
The first work Knussen wrote for the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center was the one that opens this evening’s concert. A second commission, for almost the same instrumental formation, resulted not in a second book of Ophelia Dances but in music with a different voice in the background, Walt Whitman’s, that voice continuing from songs Knussen had composed immediately before. Three short nature lyrics by the poet are sung now by instruments and small groups. The first piece looks forward from winter’s “icy ligatures” to the time when “a thousand forms shall rise,” “the delicate miracles of earth” that are flowers, grass, and birdsong. Next comes a study in color, seeing the sky filled with “shot gold, maroon and violet, dazzling silver, emerald, fawn.” Third is another spring image: the first dandelion, “simple and fresh and fair.” The finale —leaving Whitman’s world, and taking as long as the three previous songs together—is a memorial to the Polish-British composer Andrzej Panufnik.
The work is dedicated to two New York friends, Fred Sherry and Virgil Blackwell, who both took part in the first performance, at Alice Tully Hall in 1992.
Requiem – Songs for Sue, Op. 33 (2005-06)
Knussen’s touching and delicate memorial to his former wife, who died in 2003 at the age of fifty-three, is a garland of songs where themes of time and remembrance are given the immediate presence of music.
Sue Knussen, who was born and raised in the U. S., was involved closely and warmly with music, not only as the wife and mother of musicians (the Knussens’ daughter Sonya is a singer) but also in her professional career, which took her from producing music documentaries in London to working as education director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. She was a source of cheer wherever—outgoing, goodhumored and concerned—and Knussen’s work registers the close of such a life with a puzzled surprise that is more poignant than sadness.
Lines are chosen from four poets—first Emily Dickinson, in a sequence of excerpts put together by the composer. Startlingly, the long-dead poet addresses the person being memorialized, though, of course, Dickinson’s “Sue” was the sister-in-law to whom she was devoted. The Antonio Machado poem introduces a note of humor, while W. H. Auden’s “Villanelle” provides opportunities for recurrence and evanescence to be considered both in the repetitions of lines and in the passing detail. Rainer Maria Rilke at the end—a fragment from the poet’s “Requiem,” which he wrote on the early death of his friend the painter Paula Modersohn-Becker—links back in mention of dawn and in horn-glow to the work’s beginning.
Knussen’s settings—real songs—have recurrent patterns tilting toward popular melody, luminously accompanied, illuminated, and illustrated by the homogeneous but colorful ensemble he chose for “the overall sound of the piece to be autumnal”: flutes, clarinets, horns, and low strings with harp, marimba, and piano (doubling celesta). The piece plays for eleven minutes or so, and was first performed in Chicago in 2006.