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British Composer Oliver Knussen Dies at 66

Oliver Knussen
R. Roberts/Daily Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Oliver Knussen

Acclaimed British composer Oliver Knussen has died at age 66 following a short, undisclosed illness, according to BBC News. The beloved English classical music figure was known for his operatic adaptations of two children's works in conjunction with author Maurice Sendak: Where The Wild Things Are and Higglety Pigglety Pop!.

Knussen, who was the house composer for more than four decades for Faber Music, also worked as an Artist in Association with the BBC Symphony Orchestra (2009-2014), Head of Contemporary Music at the Tanglewood Music Center (1986-1993) and Artistic Director of the Aldeburgh Festival (198301998) and music director of the London Sinfonietta beginning in 1998 (until 2002).

In a statement, Faber called Knussen "one of the world’s most eminent and influential composer-conductors," adding that he "leaves behind him a body of work of crystalline concision, complexity and richness. His impact on the musical community – both in the UK and around the world – was extraordinary, and is a testament to his great generosity and curiosity as a musician, as well as his unfailing love and deep knowledge of the art form."

Born in June 12, 1952 in Glasgow, Knussen began composing at age six, studied with late British composer John Lambert as well as American composer/jazz performer Gunther Schuller at Tanglewood in Mass., and wrote his First Symphony at 15, later conducting the premiere with the London Symphony Orchestra, where his father, Stuart Knussen, was principal double bass. His Third Symphony (1973-9), dedicated to American composer/pianist Michael Tilson Thomas, is regarded as a twentieth-century classic. In addition to the 1980s Sendak collaborations, Knussen left behind several ensemble works of note, including 1975's Ophelia Dances and 1979's Coursing (1979).

"Olly's death is devastating -- he is a towering and irreplaceable figure in British music and had many associations over the years with BBC Symphony Orchestra, BBC Proms and BBC Radio 3," Alan Davey, controller of BBC Radio 3, BBC Proms and BBC Orchestras said in a statement. "His compositions had such strength, economy and clarity. He selflessly championed the music of fellow composers and was an all-round lovely, thoughtful, engaging man who will be hugely missed by everyone. Our thoughts are with his family and friends."

Knussen earned a CBE (Commander of the British Empire) in 1994 and the Queen's Medal for Music in 2016, as well as the distinguished Ivor Novello Award for Classical Music that same year. He is survived by his daughter, Sonya, a mezzo-soprano.


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