Composer and conductor

Born: June 12, 1952,

Died: July 9, 2018

OLIVER Knussen, who has died aged 66, was a Glasgow-born composer and conductor whose popular and influential work included three symphonies and two successful children’s operas – Where the Wild Things Are and Higglety Pigglety Pop!

He was also a leading conductor and festival director who worked with ensembles including the London Sinfonietta and Birmingham Contemporary Music Group. Throughout the 1980s and 90s, he was also co-artistic director of the Aldeburgh Festival and was head of contemporary music at the Tanglewood Music Centre in the US from 1986 to 1993.

He was born in Glasgow but grew up in London where his father was principal double bass of the London Symphony Orchestra. Encouraged by his father, he started composing at the extraordinarily young age of six and conducted his first symphony with the LSO at the age of 15 when the principal conductor fell ill.

In the 1960s he studied with the composer John Lambert and in the 1970s with Gunther Schuller in the US and his confidence as a composer grew - in 1969 he was commissioned by Andre Previn to write a concerto for orchestra and the following year he was commissioned by Yehudi Menuhin to write his second symphony.

"Once I was reading music, I began to imitate it," he said of his early days. "I was a terrible piano student but it was clear I was more keen on making up my own stuff. Dad probably thought it would eventually go away at first. He always wanted me to become a conductor. After a while he asked a couple of people what to do, and they said I'd better have some lessons, so off I went to the Watford School of Music where, luckily, my teacher was John Lambert."

As a composer, Knussen's best known work is probably his collaboration with the American illustrator and children's author Maurice Sendak on an operatic adaption of the former's Where The Wild Things Are series. It was followed by another opera for children Higglety Pigglety Pop!

As a conductor he made around 60 recordings and worked with the BBC Symphony Orchestra as Artist in Association between 2009 and 2014. He conducted the Scottish Chamber Orchestra at City Hall in Glasgow in 2016.

He received several awards during his career including the Ivor Novello Award for Classical Music and the 2015 Queen's Medal for Music. In 1994 he was awarded a CBE and in 2009 received the Royal Philharmonic Society Conductor Award. He also received an honorary doctorate from the Royal Academy of Music.

Famously, composing could be a pretty painful process for Knussen, who would often agonise over his pieces for years. “I’m not a composer who can just sit down and dash something off,” he said in 2012. “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.”

The controller of BBC3, BBC Proms and BBC Orchestras Alan Davey said: "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.

"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."

Knussen is survived by his daughter, Sonya, who is a classical singer. His wife Sue, a producer of music programmes, died in 2003.