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Oliver Knussen

Oliver Knussen Composer

Music for a Puppet Court for 2 chamber orchestras, Op.11

Performances: 2
Tracks: 8
Musicology (work in progress):
  • Music for a Puppet Court for 2 chamber orchestras, Op.11
    Year: 1972-73
    • 1.Puzzle I. "Iste tenor ascendit"
    • 2.Toyshop music after "tris"
    • 3.Antiphon (after "iste tenor ascendit...")
    • 4.Puzzle II: "tris"
    • Puzzle I: Iste tenor ascendit; revised in 1983
    • Toyshop music (After "tris"); revised in 1983
    • Antiphon (After "Iste tenor ascendit..."); revised in 1983
    • Puzzle II: "Tris..." (revised in 1983)
At some point during his service as court composer to Henry VIII, John Lloyd (scholars guess) composed a few puzzle-canons for the court songbooks. Puzzle-canons are something like musical acrostics, with the cantus firmi indicated by verbal clues and the assembly of the canon from the clues guided by the ironclad laws of Baroque counterpoint. In 1972, Oliver Knussen transcribed two of the puzzle-canons for two chamber orchestras, the left one centered around a celesta, a guitar and two flutes, the right featuring a harp and two clarinets. Later, Knussen added two variations of his own to the earlier transcriptions, to provide himself a break in between his two one-act operas based on books by Maurice Sendak. The result was the Music for a puppet court, Op. 11, and this music is as delightful as one might expect from the title.

Music for a puppet court opens with one of the transcriptions; the melancholy Baroque melody which resulted from Lloyd's clues is assigned mostly to the flutes, which play it coolly and with reserve. The second movement is titled "Toyshop music," and is actually a variation on the second puzzle. This is more immediately "modern" music, with elaborate percussion, flutter-tongued flutes and irregular rhythm; it is also definitely toyshop music, with percussion snaps and melodic whirlings and shakings and glistening triangle notes suggesting busy, cheerful industry. The third movement is a variation on the first puzzle. It is titled "Antiphon," and a version of that puzzle's theme—reenvisioned through a modern lens—is played in the clarinets over a gentle string ostinato. Meanwhile, the left-hand orchestra plays occasional, seemingly unrelated fanfares and other jaunty melodies. Music for a puppet court closes with the second puzzle, played in Baroque style first by the celesta, guitar, and harp, and then by the winds. The separate orchestras emphasize the counterpoint, but Knussen introduces no anachronisms until the very end, when the celesta has to add one last note. Music for a puppet court is a little fanciful, a little extravagant, and a lot of fun to listen to.

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