Born in Glasgow in 1952, Knussen grew up near London, where his father was principal double bass of the London Symphony Orchestra. It was with the LSO that he made his debut in April 1968, conducting his First Symphony in London and in Carnegie Hall, New York. Oliver Knussen attended the Purcell School, and studied composition initially with John Lambert. In 1970 he was awarded the first of three fellowships to Tanglewood, where he studied with Gunther Schuller. During this time he completed several works which were subsequently widely performed on both sides of the Atlantic and established his early reputation. In 1975 Knussen returned permanently to the UK and the appearance of subsequent works, notably Coursing (1979) and the Third Symphony (1973-9) placed him in the forefront of contemporary British music. The 1980s were largely devoted to the operatic double-bill written in collaboration with Maurice Sendak and produced by Glyndebourne Festival Opera, Where the Wild Things Are (l979-83) and Higglety Pigglety Pop! (1984-5, revised 1999).
Several of Oliver Knussen's later works have established themselves in the repertory: Flourish with Fireworks (1988), The Way to Castle Yonder (1988-90), Songs without Voices (1992), Two Organa (1994), the Horn Concerto (1994) and the Violin Concerto (2002). Recent works include Cleveland Pictures for orchestra (2003), Ophelia's Last Dance for piano (2004) and Requiem - Songs for Sue for soprano and chamber orchestra (2005-6).
From 1983 till 1998, Knussen was an Artistic Director of the Aldeburgh Festival, and also held posts at the Tanglewood Music Center and with the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. In 1992, with Colin Matthews, he established the Contemporary Composition and Performance courses at the Britten-Pears School in Snape.
After many years of close collaboration with the London Sinfonietta, Oliver Knussen became Music Director in 1998, and in 2002 was made Conductor Laureate. In 2006 he was appointed Artist in Association with the BCMG. Among his many awards are Honorary Memberships of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the Royal Philharmonic Society, an Honorary Doctorate from the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama, and the 2004 Association of British Orchestras Award. In 2006 he was named the second recipient of the Michael Ludwig Nemmers Prize from Northwestern University, USA.
He has guest-conducted in many parts of the world, including in the USA, Canada, Europe and Japan. As a conductor he has recorded more than thirty CDs of contemporary music, several of which have won international awards - these include Robin Holloway's Concerto for Orchestra No.2, which won NMC's first Gramophone Award, and Maxwell Davies' opera Taverner.
He became a CBE in the 1994 Birthday Honours.