Oliver Knussen’s recent passing occasioned an outpouring of tributes to this much-loved British conductor and composer. His most iconic compositions are two one-act operas based on the Maurice Sendak children’s books Where the Wild Things Are and Higglety Pigglety Pop!. With their Sendak-derived décor and full-body costumes they must be seen to be fully appreciated, and there’s an attractive DVD that offers both. Easier to sample online are his orchestral works, which combine the colorful sound world of early 20th century music with a contemporary approach to time and melody.
Knussen’s Horn Concerto from 1994 is a good example. Written for the great Barry Tuckwell, it begins with some woodwind chirps and string harmonics that sound right out of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. After some flute flurries reminiscent of early Stravinsky, the soloist enters with the most fragmentary of melodic ideas: a three-note trill that gets longer and more discursive—but hardly more substantial—as it recurs throughout the piece. Though the horn plays almost continuously, its lines are rhetorical and assertive, often beginning with repetitions of that little three-note cell in various guises. It’s an obsessive, postmodern approach to melodic line, quite unlike the neat rounded curves you get in a Mozart or Strauss horn concerto. Knussen’s emphasis is on the soundscape itself, almost like a French impressionist ballet that’s had its melodies removed, causing what was previously introductory or accompanimental to be elevated to the foreground.
Knussen’s chromatic chords and luscious orchestrations often suggest Ravel. One example is a passage toward the end of the Concerto that’s reminiscent of the “Pantomime” from Daphnis et Chloé (with a horn swapped for Ravel’s flute). Knussen is one of the most French-sounding of all British composers, and he was an important influence on younger compatriots like Thomas Adès and Charlotte Bray who favor conventional ensembles, enjoy mixing tonal and atonal harmonies, and embrace the French tradition of sensuous, colorful orchestral writing. His US-based counterparts include many of the New Romantics, such as John Harbison and John Corigliano, but also musicians like Chen Yi, whose octet Sparkle resembles Knussen’s Flourish with Fireworks.
If listening to a 19th century concerto is like taking a walk in a familiar neighborhood, then hearing Knussen’s Horn Concerto is like being dropped in a foreign city whose unknown language makes its sights and sounds seem abstract. Sometimes this makes it easier to see the art in previously overlooked details. Knussen’s music is all about the joy in doing just that.