Measure by Measure

Songs for Olly

A requiem for Knussen

By Sudip Bose | July 19, 2018
Mark Allan/BBC/Courtesy Harrison Parrot
Mark Allan/BBC/Courtesy Harrison Parrot

A week and a half ago, Oliver Knussen, one of the preeminent musicians of our time, died at the age of 66 at his home in rural Snape, a village on the Suffolk coast of England. I cannot think of a contemporary composer whose music has, over the years, given me so much consistent delight. His influences were many—Igor Stravinsky, Benjamin Britten, Claude Debussy, and the pre-12-tone Anton Webern and Alban Berg, among others—yet Knussen’s accessible modernist idiom, with its mastery of instrumental color, sounds like no one else’s. He wrote succinctly (his Third Symphony, for example, lasts only 15 minutes or so), never wasting a gesture or a note, the merest phrase capable of expressing worlds of feeling. Not that Knussen was prolific. He wrote methodically and laboriously, while suffering from a near-debilitating streak of perfectionism. Perhaps another reason for the relative paucity of his output was his involvement in other aspects of his profession, as artistic director of the Aldeburgh Festival for some 15 years and head of contemporary music activities at Tanglewood for seven. He was also an influential conductor, championing, both onstage and in the recording studio, many essential, canonical works of the 20th and early 21st centuries.

He wasn’t an instrumental prodigy, yet what other word but prodigious might we use to describe a boy who conducted his own First Symphony with the London Symphony Orchestra at the age of 15? (The concert caused quite a stir with the press, though Knussen later withdrew the piece, acknowledging its immaturity.) In the 1960s, he studied with John Lambert, pedagogue to a number of prominent British composers; in the early ’70s, he worked with Gunther Schuller at Tanglewood. It was there, during a summer in the idyllic Berkshires, that Knussen met a horn player named Sue Freedman, whom he would later marry.

I first got to know Knussen’s work in the 1990s—via a CD containing the Horn Concerto (1994) and the Whitman Settings (1991), among other pieces. Later, I fell under the spell of the Ophelia Dances (1975); the brilliant Violin Concerto (1994), composed for Pinchas Zukerman; and the two operas from the 1980s written in collaboration with Maurice Sendak, Where the Wild Things Are and Higglety Pigglety Pop! Last May, I wrote about the wondrous Whitman Settings, an evocative picture of loneliness and isolation that happened to change the way I perceived several familiar lines of Walt Whitman’s. Today, however, it seems appropriate to revisit another vocal masterpiece, the work Knussen composed in the mid-2000s after the death of his wife: Requiem—Songs for Sue.

This moving piece consists of four songs, set to texts by Emily Dickinson (a mashup of several of her lines), Antonio Machado, W. H. Auden, and Rainer Maria Rilke. Lines from Rilke gave rise to the project, with Knussen’s friend and fellow composer Alexander Goehr having printed an excerpt from the poet’s “Requiem for a Friend” in a booklet memorializing Sue Knussen. Requiem—Songs for Sue, scored for solo soprano and an ensemble of 15 instrumentalists, is suffused with appropriate somberness. “I wanted the sound to be predominantly autumnal in tone,” Knussen said of the work, “and the instrumentation was chosen to that end: flute, alto flute, two clarinets with bass clarinet, and pairs of horns, violas and ’cellos plus double bass, marimba with tam-tam, keyboards and harp.” Yet he was conflicted about composing so intensely personal a piece, fearful that the work might come off as self-indulgent.

It is anything but that. The opening plunges us into an agitated, anguished state, with Dickinson’s line “Is it true, dear Sue?”—originally composed for the poet’s sister-in-law upon the birth of a child—eerily transformed here to mark not the start of life but its end. From there, the music proceeds toward more serene terrain, and we encounter a darkly beautiful melody, a kind of lullaby for the dead, before the score opens up, suggesting both timelessness and spaciousness, the voice uttering these haunting words: “I see thee better in the dark, / I do not need a light.” This theme of seeing and not seeing, of trying to reach across the void to behold one’s love, is taken up in the second text, Machado’s “Los Ojos” (“The Eyes”): “Cuando murió su amada / pensó en hacerse viejo / en la mansión cerrada, / solo … ” (“When his beloved died / he thought of growing old / in the closed mansion, / alone …”) The music—sometimes strident, sometimes piercing, often unforgiving—sounds to me like an act of defiance; the artist may at some point accept his loss, but not yet, and not without a fight. The mood changes in the setting of Auden’s wartime villanelle “If I Could Tell You,” in which Time is cast as a figure indifferent to human suffering and loss:

Time will say nothing but I told you so
Time only knows the price we have to pay;
If I could tell you I would let you know.

In this poetic inquiry into the mysteries of life, death, and the natural world, the music becomes more languid—opulent and shimmering—and when the singer whispers a line, “Because I love you more than I can say,” the contrast between spoken and sung speech is chilling. All the while, the orchestral accompaniment, pruned into laconic Webern-like phrases, continues to stab at the heart. Auden was a favorite poet of both Knussen’s and his wife’s, and “If I Could Tell You” seems to be the emotional heart of the entire piece. The requiem’s final movement, a brief setting of Rilke, seems like a reluctant letting go, with ominous, seductive timbres in the flute and marimba, and with no real feeling of consolation, only a lingering sadness. It’s an alluring end to a mesmerizing work, as fitting a memorial to the man who composed it as to the woman for whom it was intended.

Listen to this excerpt from Requiem—Songs for Sue, with soloist Claire Booth and Oliver Knussen leading the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group:

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