Olly Knussen - The Gentle Giant
Olly Knussen, one of the kings of contemporary classical music, died very suddenly and very recently.
We had once exchanged kind gazes and warm handshakes in the lobby of the Royal Academy of Music. This man, beloved for his music and warmth, was always known to me by the colloquial phrase that RAM composers used to identify him: The Gentle Giant. And his towering height, infused with an intoxicating kindness, meant he lived up to his lovingly-assigned nickname from the moment I met him
Though his music is expansive in character, there’s something to his compositional output that is overwhelming gentle. Even in the most jagged, angular moments of his music, there is an all-encompassing feeling that can only be defined as Olly.
In today’s musical world, where quality is far-too-often equated with complexity and uniqueness, Olly’s musical voice is a beacon that breaks through the noise to remind us of what we should be trying to do. Olly’s music is complex and unique, but it’s clear that his vision was never marred by such low-hanging artistic fruit. Olly shot for the musical stars, knowing that if he did so, he would create great music- the byproduct of which would be complexity and originality. His music is short, but rich in musical detail – perfect for the listener newly arrived to modern classical music, or classical music in general.
One of his most enthralling works is his fantasy opera “Where the Wild Things Are”, with a libretto by the book’s author Maurice Sendak. This story of the young and troublesome Max is vividly told in this Knussen/Sendak co-creation. The overture and first aria (“Max”) display a score that bubbles with character, and broods with darkness. Sudden shifts of mood, paired with the inspired interplay of voice and orchestra, paint a picture of Max: the hyperactive boy with a hyperactive imagination. If you have an hour to spend, I’d recommend listening to the whole piece, but get a good taste of it by listening to this opening:
Olly’s Symphony no. 2 is particularly interesting to listen to. It is filled with delicious musical landscapes. Cascades of orchestral colors meet gritty, pulsating rhythms. Soaring lines sung by the soprano are adopted by a shapeshifting orchestra, carrying us seamlessly from one movement to the next.
Listen to it all, but if you only have time for one movement then check-out the fourth movement, entitled “An die Schwester” (“To the sister” in German). This piece is a kind of truncation of so much of Olly’s work to come, and so much of what came before in 20th century music. The soprano voice is pushed to the limits, while the orchestral musicians use their instruments to play and create a unified musical atmosphere with the soprano, almost improvisatory in nature.
Perhaps one of Olly’s most tragically beautiful works are his “Songs for Sue”, written after the early and tragic death of his wife, Sue. Scouring obituaries of Olly, you can find a range of anecdotes about their life together, but what is clear is their mutual passion for music and eachother (as well as their daughter Sonya).
The result of grief and loss, the “Requiem: Songs for Sue” are transcendent- surely one of Olly’s best, and one of the best pieces of our time. Being the phenomenal orchestrator that he is, Olly uses a chamber group of 15 players and one soprano to invent a new and relevant sound world in each instance of this four movement, interwoven work. His text is adopted from four different poets: Emily Dickinson, Antonio Machado, W.H. Auden, and Rainer Maria Rilke.
The first movement, with text by Emily Dickinson, instantly captivates the listener. Many composers have set text by Emily Dickinson, and each composer has their own way of bringing her intense questioning to life. Knussen masterfully embodies a sense of grief, while still giving credence to each individual word – using music to paint the meaning of each word. Such attentiveness is present throughout each of the four movements, but this first
Olly was a kind, generous, and absurdly creative and talented composer. Though his last years were less productive than those that came before, this was a result of intense artistic perfectionism. He passed with famously open commissions which the world was dying to hear. I only hope that there is more of this wonderful man's artistic output stored away in closets and drawers, which the world might one day hear. For now, whether you’re new to classical music or a returning lover, all of Olly Knussen’s is worth exploring, and you are bound to find something you fall in love with.