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Oliver Knussen, composer of ‘Where the Wild Things Are’ opera, dies at 66

Mr. Knussen had a longtime association with the Boston Symphony Orchestra.JOHN TLUMACKI/GLOBE STAFF/FILE 2013

The opera “Where the Wild Things Are,” which became one of composer Oliver Knussen’s most beloved works, had its origin when he was in The Bookstore in Lenox and picked up Maurice Sendak’s famous book of the same name.

Only by chance did he meet a mutual acquaintance at Tanglewood, who in turn introduced him to Sendak. The children’s author proceeded to ask Mr. Knussen a key question that set a friendship in motion.

“He asked me what the best children’s opera ever written was,” Mr. Knussen recalled in a 1986 Globe interview, “and from the moment I gave the second act of ‘Boris Godunov’ as my answer, we got on like a house afire.”


With his Falstaffian physique, Mr. Knussen was a memorable presence as a prolific conductor. And as a youth, he made arguably one of the most audacious entries into the late 20th century’s orchestral scene. In 1968, at 15, he conducted the London Symphony Orchestra in the premier of his First Symphony.

Decades later, he all but disavowed that early work (“it’s VERY withdrawn now,” he said six years ago), and spoke openly about the burden of such an early success. “It’s a sort of wound that has never really healed, an occurrence I wish would be calmly forgotten and put away,” he said in a 2012 interview with Fiona Maddocks for the London newspaper The Guardian, and added: “I suspect some of my more troublesome personality traits can be traced back to that time.”

Faber Music, Mr. Knussen’s publisher, announced this week that he had died in England at 66. Though Faber didn’t disclose a cause of death, Mr. Knussen, who lived in Snape, England, had been treated for serious ailments as long ago as 2005, when he canceled appearances while hospitalized for abdominal surgery.


The British composer had a long affiliation with the Tanglewood Music Center. After his London debut, Mr. Knussen was a teenager when he studied at Tanglewood with composer Gunther Schuller in the early 1970s. Mr. Knussen subsequently made regular summer visits, served as head of contemporary music from 1986 to 1993, and at various times was composer-in-residence, a faculty member, or a fellow.

He also had served as artistic director of England’s Aldeburgh Festival, and frequently conducted the Boston Symphony Orchestra at Symphony Hall.

“My life in general would be unimaginable without Tanglewood, without the myriad experiences and lessons I learned there over the years,” he told the Globe in 2013.

In an earlier Globe interview, in 1986, he said that after his debut as a teenager, “I had no real idea of what was good and bad in my own work. I was surrounded by praise and by resentment, but Schuller was the first person who made me feel like a real composer, and who could tell me with authority when I was on the right track. It follows that my first decent piece, the Second Symphony, was begun here at Tanglewood.”

Praising a 2013 concert at Symphony Hall, Globe classical music critic Jeremy Eichler said that the “BSO program, curated and conducted by the British composer Oliver Knussen, had the exploratory energy and distilled interest of roughly a full month of typical subscription concerts, all packed into a two-hour stretch.”

In a 1999 review of a BSO concert at Symphony Hall, Globe music critic Richard Dyer wrote that the opera “ ‘Where the Wild Things Are,’ like the Sendak book, is a masterpiece of prodigious craftsmanship deployed to present simple and profound things — and the complexities that lie behind such things.”


Those complexities often didn’t come easy while Mr. Knussen was composing. He often conceded that he encountered difficulties finishing commissions.

“I find it hard psychologically to switch from the conducting persona to being at home alone,” he told The Guardian in 2012. He added that his high standards also got in the way: “I’m not a composer who can just sit down and dash something off. I need lots of time to think, and these days I won’t let go unless I’ve really done what I set out to do.”

Born in Glasgow, Mr. Knussen was a son of Stuart Knussen, the principal double bass of the London Symphony. His mother was the former Ethelyn Jane Alexander. In a Globe interview, Mr. Knussen recalled a childhood in a home filled with 78 rpm records, “virtually all orchestral music.” That experience shaped his composing, in which he was “profoundly drawn to miniature things, and fineness of detail and precision.”

As a teenager, he said, he was drawn to music “made of amazing, intricate mechanisms,” though he added: “And there is of course the fact that I am a very large person who has always felt like a child in some ways.”


He began composing while very young. “I was mostly interested in what the little dots on the paper looked like,” he told the Globe in 1986. “What they sounded like didn’t concern me so much. My First Symphony actually was three unfinished earlier pieces strung together — which has not been uncharacteristic of my method since.”

Mr. Knussen said that as a boy, he met famed composer Benjamin Britten: “I didn’t realize who he was — someone said, ‘Go over to that man over there,’ and he said, ‘Who are you?’ and invited me to tea. He looked at my music and advised me to study counterpoint, not harmony.”

Though Mr. Knussen’s composing output wasn’t extensive, due partly to his perfectionism, his other works included a Second Symphony — a song cycle set to texts by Sylvia Plath and Georg Trakl — and a second collaboration with Sendak, inspired by the author’s book “Higglety Pigglety Pop!”

In 1972, Mr. Knussen married Sue Freedman, a horn player from New Hampshire who also had spent time at Tanglewood. She became an award-winning producer of TV music programs and died in 2003, at 53, of a blood infection.

“Director Sue Knussen deserves credit for the intelligence and imagination with which she has handled a rare musical topic suited to television: She helps us see and understand part of that mysterious process that results in what we hear for a fact,” the Globe’s Dyer wrote in 1995 of her TV documentary “Legendary Maestros: The Art of Conducting.”


Mr. Knussen composed “Requiem — Songs for Sue,” drawing text from having read hundreds of Emily Dickinson poems. He had also composed “Sonya’s Lullaby” for his daughter, Sonya, a classical singer.

In addition to his daughter, Mr. Knussen’s survivors include his brother, Kenneth, and his sister, Susan MacQuarrie, according to The New York Times. Information about a service was not immediately available.

Along with composing and conducting, Mr. Knussen was known for championing the work of younger composers.

“I’ve tried to make up for all the ridiculous privileges I’ve had myself — growing up ‘in’ an orchestra, having my music played publicly at an absurd age — so in a way I’m paying my dues, but I’m happy to,” he told Maddocks. “I don’t like selfish, isolationist attitudes and I really am interested in what others are doing.”

Marquard can be reached at