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Remembering Oliver Knussen

Oliver Knussen


We learned with great sadness that the remarkable composer, conductor, and former London Sinfonietta Music Director Oliver Knussen passed away on Sunday 8 July, aged 66.

Knussen was a vital part of the London Sinfonietta family. His Coursing was commissioned by the ensemble and premiered in 1979. He had worked with us as both a composer and conductor from the 1970s, and went on to become Music Director from 1998–2002. His operas Where the Wild Things Are and Higgelty Piggelty Pop! enjoyed huge success and toured widely throughout the UK, and his collective works have been performed by the London Sinfonietta hundreds of times. His musical output stands testament to his genius, whilst his guidance and mentoring of young musicians and composers has inspired a generation.

Read memories and tributes to this icon of British music, from London Sinfonietta staff, players and supporters, below.

From all at the London Sinfonietta we send our thoughts and deepest sympathies to Olly’s family and friends. 

A man of towering, uncompromising musical integrity Andrew Burke, London Sinfonietta Chief Executive & Artistic Director

"Olly once showed me his note book in which he carefully recorded, in very beautiful handwriting, every programme he had devised and conducted. For some reason I can’t remember, he had started at the back of the book and was working towards the front. It deeply impressed me, through this simple ritual, how personal and cherished was every stage of his own musical journey.  

Olly helped create, and then lead as Music Director, an era at the London Sinfonietta that is now a shining part of our history. His performances with us are some of the best we have ever given. And his music some of the most inventive and engaging we’ve ever played. He was a man of towering, uncompromising musical integrity.

Everyone involved in the London Sinfonietta will miss him, and we send our thoughts and condolences to his friends and family."

Andrew Burke, London Sinfonietta Chief Executive & Artistic Director

"My memories of working with Olly go back something like 40 years from when Michael Vyner was our Artistic Director. Olly had the most amazing ear and clarity in the most complicated of pieces. I will never forget his totally wonderful performances of Elliott Carter’s music and of course everybody else he conducted! He introduced us to so many composers and of course his own pieces for ensemble. What is also unforgettable is the many years we played at the Aldeburgh Festival when he was Artistic Director, and the many performances by young British composers he encouraged. I also have so many happy memories of meals and journeys together with his great humour, immense knowledge and love of gossip! He will be greatly missed."

John Constable, London Sinfonietta Emeritus Principal Piano

Ollie was a big, friendly giant. A genius with an encyclopaedic knowledge, an analytical mind with amazing attention to detail, and an amusing raconteur. Joan Atherton, London Sinfonietta Principal Violin 2

"During the earliest days of the London Sinfonietta, I would phone Olly, then a precociously talented teenager, and ask for his programming suggestions. For example, I could request the name of a work requiring only three piccolos, a double bass and 2 percussion players and he would respond within thirty seconds with a couple of suggestions - maybe a slight exaggeration, but……!  His encyclopaedic musical knowledge was astounding, as was his early compositional ability shown when he stood in at short notice to conduct his own First Symphony with the LSO at the age of 15.

Splitting his time between composing and conducting ensured a relatively small creative output, particularly given the care and attention to nuance and subtlety that infused his music. He was famous for missed deadlines owing to his scrupulously painstaking approach to finishing pieces. The Sinfonietta probably didn’t help in this regard as Olly so enjoyed working with the ensemble that he devoted large periods of time to us. But, as his recorded legacy shows, he was a master musician with both pen and stick. We will miss you, Olly."

David Atherton, London Sinfonietta co-founder  


His music is one of the life-enhancing glories of the repertoire of the 20th and 21st centuries. Tom Service

"British music has just suffered a huge loss with the death of Oliver Knussen. Olly's musicianship was like a perfect jewel: the precision and insight of his conducting, the sheer beauty of the shapes and sounds he created in his compositions, the detailed thinking that went into the programmes he made with orchestras and ensembles. Musicians said that working with him was like doing the best kind of university course. For me personally, working closely with him for 8 years when, with Cathy Graham, we jointly ran the London Sinfonietta, was a privilege and an education. He had impeccable high standards in everything he did which is why his musical output was relatively small - but each piece contains a world of invention and expression."

Gillian Moore CBE, former London Sinfonietta Artistic Director 

"I realise as I write this that Olly Knussen has been a presence in my life for over forty years, I met him when he had just discovered Where the Wild Things Are and had decided to turn it into an opera. I have seen him progress from a precociously talented young man to become one of the most important European composers of our time. The exquisite craftsmanship and artistry in his compositions was matched by his extraordinary skill as a conductor. Above all his care for the work of his fellow composers was peerless and there can be few of his younger colleagues who have not benefited from his help and advice. We will continue to treasure his music as we miss his powerful presence."

Paul Silverthorne, London Sinfonietta Principal Viola

His musical conscience will live on in the London Sinfonietta’s DNA for decades to come Paul Meecham, former London Sinfonietta Managing Director

"Olly was a perfectionist, as composer, as conductor, as recording artist. He set the bar to his own exacting high standards. It was always an ‘interesting’ if ultimately rewarding journey to work with him on creating a program. Calls (pre e-mail days) would not get returned. Deadlines for brochures approached. And then, out of the blue, the phone would ring and he had an idea. Within 10 minutes of some creative back-and-forth, a compelling program had emerged, invariably including the introduction of a young, unknown composer who turned out to be an incredible find. In the recording studio, he could be exasperating as he strove for perfection, but the astounding results on discs of music by Carter, Copland, Goehr, Henze, Knussen, late Stravinsky and Takemitsu are there for posterity. 

It seems unimaginable to think that Olly will no longer be around to devise intriguing programs, to add to his compositional oeuvre of crystalline vignettes, and to act as mentor for yet more generations of composers.

And yet, just speaking for myself, I know his warm, generous spirit, his love for music both old and new, will continue to be an important guide. I feel confident his musical conscience will also live on in the London Sinfonietta’s DNA for decades to come." 

Paul Meecham, former London Sinfonietta Managing Director

Published: 10 Jul 2018