Two scenes from his teenage years in prewar Vienna defined Hans Keller’s later life: one a kind of heaven, the other a window on hell. He was a viola pupil of Oskar Adler, a doctor and musician, and took part in the famously select chamber music salons at Adler’s house in the Neubaugasse, where on Saturday afternoons the luminaries of Vienna would play string quartets and talk about music. In his Vienna days, Schoenberg had dropped in to play cello (‘He was a total autodidact,’ Adler recalled); Webern, too (‘no firm rhythmic articulation’); and the fabulously gifted Franz Schmidt, who could sit down at the piano and play from memory any passage from any work you chose to mention. Keller remembered those Saturday afternoons as occasions of the purest music-making (‘full-blooded, passionate Musikantentum’), an ideal against which he measured all subsequent musical experiences, and which fostered the convictions that came to underpin his philosophy of music, as a writer, teacher and radio broadcaster.
Soon after the Anschluss, Keller was arrested, imprisoned and beaten up by the Gestapo. On his release, he decided to flee Vienna for London. He was waiting to board the plane when he was taken to one side and questioned, then allowed on. Why they let him go, he never knew. His encounters with Nazis, the loss of his Vienna life and the strain of adapting to a new country, soon at war with his homeland, took their toll. A photograph from 1937, taken on a family holiday when Keller was eighteen, shows a good-looking, delicate-featured young man, with a dreamy, unselfconscious air. At 22, he is middle-aged. There’s a gauntness to his long, oval face, with its high forehead and downward-turned Walter Benjamin moustache, a settled sadness in his eyes; and though he is not tall, he is thin, and the overall impression is of the concentrated narrowness of a figure by Giacometti. He would look this way for the rest of his life.
In a talk on Radio 4 called ‘The Time of My Life’, broadcast in 1974, Keller reflected on the violence he had been subjected to as a young man, describing the Vienna experiences as ‘an escape into reality’. Frank Kermode was listening and, much moved, wrote to Keller: ‘I filled out, with my own fears, the understatements of your talk. I suppose it must be that the school bully, the military sadist, and perhaps oneself in certain moments are, though insignificant in comparison, and relatively powerless, continuous in intention with your interrogators and guards.’ In reply, Keller spoke of his dismay at the fact that so many of his correspondents seemed intent on projecting their less acceptable feelings onto other people at other times, to excuse themselves from ‘the need to do something here and now’ (in a letter to the Listener, he described the past as ‘morality’s dreamland, where nothing need be, can be done’). The time of Keller’s life was always ‘now’, and it was as the art form of ‘now’ that Oskar Adler’s salon had taught him to understand music. Music, to be true to itself, he would later say, must be ‘a matter of life or death’.
As a music critic, Keller became known for his thoroughly un-English directness. Radical candour was a point of principle; not to speak his mind was out of the question. Alison Garnham and Susi Woodhouse, surmising that there was never a time when he wasn’t like this, quote in their biography of Keller a wonderful fan letter he wrote aged sixteen to his idol, the violinist Bronislaw Huberman, after a concert, to the effect of: ‘You are the great and incomparable Huberman. I bow down at your feet. Everything you do expresses your soul. Admittedly, you weren’t quite on the same form as you were last time I heard you, and it was a pity you chose those pieces in the second half. But still, you are Huberman, so what can I say.’ Unconditional praise was outside his register; it offended his sense that perfection was an impossibility. ‘Your performance in the “Harp” was so impressive,’ he wrote to Levon Chilingirian, ‘that I shall allow myself a few criticisms of the less impressive moments’; ‘the Buschs should know that sound is not their strength … But Busch’s Beethoven! Here was musical life’; and so on.
Keller prided himself on his remarkable command of language, and he argued the toss on grammatical and orthographic minutiae as though the future of civilisation depended on it. There’s a long letter to William Mann taking him to task for his misconception of the umlaut; and, in the LRB archive, a hilarious correspondence, from the early 1980s, between Keller and the editors, about the distinction between the colon and the semi-colon, the use of the dash, the different implication of three or four dots at the end of a phrase, the intolerability of LRB house style, and, incidentally, why is it that Mary-Kay Wilmers sometimes writes her name with a hyphen and sometimes doesn’t? Karl Miller loses patience: ‘Dear Hans, every day I find a large accumulation of letters of contention and complaint, addressed to me. Most of them are from you’; then, ‘My head is dizzy with your letters and cards of criticism and rebuke’; and, finally, ‘If you do not like our editorial policies and practices, then it certainly seems best if you cease to contribute.’ (They made up.)
Keller put his force of personality to work, consciously fashioning his image as a critic prepared to tell it like it is (‘I am neither tactful nor tactical; on the other hand, I am truthful’; ‘I know when I know and shut up when I don’t’). As a young man, a refugee fresh out of an internment camp, with no formal qualifications and a need to make money, he instinctively understood that ‘being Hans Keller’ was his surest route to success. He judged the lie of the land astutely. In 1938, the year he left Vienna, Britain was on the cusp of a musical awakening. Garnham and Woodhouse set the scene: ‘[It was] a time when most British musical scholarship took place outside the universities and most musicians, if they took degrees, studied something other than music.’ There was no faculty of music at either Oxford or Cambridge. At the music colleges, a jealous patriotism, suspicious of the Continent, influenced teaching policy. When Benjamin Britten wanted to study with Alban Berg, he was prevented from doing so (wasn’t Frank Bridge good enough for him?). Herbert Howells and Ralph Vaughan Williams tried their best to dissuade the young William Glock from going to Berlin to study with Artur Schnabel, ‘adamant that there was no need whatever to look abroad for a teacher’. Outside the academy, the culture was one of enthusiastic amateurism, of dedicated ‘music lovers’ who took courses in ‘music appreciation’ and for whom music was an ‘interest’, an attitude which Keller disdained (‘I don’t think a true artistic experience can be interesting. It should be compelling’). To Austrians of Keller’s generation, Britain was ‘Das Land ohne Musik’. Yet, after 250 years with no composer of international stature (the arguable exception is Elgar), the land without music had at last produced Britten. Meanwhile, the British establishment’s centuries-old failure to invest in a flourishing indigenous music culture had been rectified by the rise of the greatest music patron the world had ever seen – the BBC.
Keller had wavered between a career in psychology and music. He was a committed Freudian and claimed to have spent five years analysing himself (though it’s hard to believe his intransigent self-sufficiency could have tolerated such a novitiate). He thought of the predicament of British musical culture in psychoanalytic terms, noticing an oscillation in attitude between excessive deference to the grandeur of the Austro-German tradition and defensive chauvinism. He was particularly struck by resistance to Britten, seeing this as a symptom of ‘group self-contempt’. As a rank outsider, and yet in his own right a formidable representative of the dominant musical culture, Keller threw himself into the task of reconciling the split in the British musical psyche, demanding a new seriousness in the performance and analysis of the Austro-German classics, while at the same time championing Britten, whom he saw (‘pace Stravinsky’) as ‘the greatest composer alive’ and whom – for his effortless technique and profound psychological insight – he was fond of comparing to Mozart. In this way, Keller sought to rehabilitate British self-esteem by reconnecting its musical culture to the great tradition.
Keller’s attacks on the sclerotic old guard, shaming them for their pharisaical refusal to acknowledge the redeemer in their midst (and how they huffed and puffed and told him to go back home!) resounded with his intellectual kind. Donald Mitchell recalled the startling impact of one of Keller’s early reviews: ‘I was knocked out by it, by its precision, its confidence … Gone were all those boring generalities and tedious descriptions … and in their place, detailed observations on rhythm, pitch, tonality, modulation, dynamics, nuances of expression.’ Mitchell, a few years younger than Keller, was founding editor of Music Survey, a radical new periodical, and he invited Keller to join him at the helm. Soon afterwards, Keller began contributing to Glock’s journal, the Score, famous for publishing the most controversial of the postwar avant-garde manifestos – Boulez’s essay ‘Schoenberg Is Dead’. Glock recalled how Keller’s first letters to him were ‘invariably aggressive’ (‘Your Schoenberg issue. Could have been worse, could have been better’), but – as was so often the case with Keller – they had only to meet to become close friends.
The partnership between Glock and Keller was to be one of the most productive in postwar British music. Glock was the natural leader, the politician, the visionary organiser. As director of the Dartington Summer School in its early years, he created an alternative centre of gravity within the British musical cosmos, away from London and outside the Royal College and Academy establishment. His prospectus was energetically internationalist, and Dartington became synonymous with the opening of British music to the Continent and the contemporary. It was here that many of the most talented composers and instrumentalists of the new generation encountered the greatest teachers of the day: ‘I suppose only Olivier Messiaen and Pierre Boulez were lacking,’ Glock would later reflect. In 1958, he invited Keller to run the chamber music course.
With his appointment, in 1959, as controller of music at the BBC, Glock took the modernising project to the centre of cultural power. One of his first acts was to recruit Keller as music talks producer, moving him a year later to oversee chamber music and recitals. For the next decade, Keller would be the music division’s chief ideologue, and Glock took few important decisions without consulting him. Their principles were unabashedly Reithian. Giving evidence to the Pilkington Committee on Broadcasting in 1962, Glock said his mission was to give listeners ‘what they will like tomorrow’, and it was perhaps this confidence that they knew what was good for people that provoked opposition in some quarters and led to derogatory talk of a ‘Glock-Keller regime’ dedicated to shutting out home-grown musical talent and filling the schedules with rebarbative music by foreigners. Garnham and Woodhouse are emphatic that this was a myth, and a cursory review of Third Programme and Radio 3 schedules during those years bears this out. (Likewise, analysis of the 1970 Proms programme, towards the end of Glock’s time as controller, reveals an exemplary balance of established repertoire with newly commissioned works, and an even split between British and non-British contemporary music.)
Keller spent two decades at the BBC, the first blissful, the second distinctly less so. The downturn came in 1969 with the publication of a BBC strategy plan, ‘Broadcasting in the Seventies’, which proposed the creation of four generic radio stations and cutbacks to music provision (less live music and the disbandment of several house orchestras). The Third Programme, icon of British Bildungsbürgertum, would be axed. Keller was outraged and led a vociferous opposition at Radio 3, largely ignored by the management. As Keller saw it, ‘Broadcasting in the Seventies’ signalled the end of an idyll at the BBC, and the dawning of an age of management consultancy, cost-benefit analysis and the law of the market. In 1972, Glock stepped back as controller of music, but Keller hung on till 1979, passed over for promotion, shunted this way and that within the music division, prodigiously productive and insistently provocative (his personnel file when he left was said to be immense). He devoted the rest of his life to teaching and writing, and died in 1985, at the age of 66, from motor neurone disease, the first symptoms of which had appeared in his forties, but which he had simply neglected, not bothering even to get a diagnosis until he was sixty.
Since his death, a small group of scholars – among them Garnham – have worked assiduously to secure recognition for Keller as a thinker about music. The project suffered a blow in 1995, when, in an LRB review, Robin Holloway declared Keller’s essays to be frustratingly thin. Holloway had known and revered Keller as a teacher and mentor, and his critique had an edge of disenchantment to it. It’s hard not to share Holloway’s sense that Keller’s essays should have been better. Their insights, while often arresting, are also strangely arrested, as if he doesn’t know how to let them breathe and develop. In a brilliantly astute identification, he hears the way the opening phrase of Wozzeck follows the exact contour of the first subject of Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony, but all he can do with the perception is adduce it for Berg’s eclecticism. He ferrets out a curious parapraxis in a Mozart manuscript, but interprets it lamely. He coins the term ‘suppressionism’ to describe a fundamental expressive modality of Stravinsky’s music, or he talks of inhibition in Brahms – promising subjects – but has trouble tying these characterisations back to the music, beyond a handful of examples. His capacity to track tonal relations in diatonic music was peerless and on the basis of it he formed a theory about the underlying unity of contrasting themes and motives in the Viennese classics, but he could never quite show why the patterns he uncovered were either necessary or sufficient for the greatness of the works in which they appeared.
Maybe we ask too much of Keller the writer. By temperament, he was more polemicist than philosopher, less the detached and reflective thinker than an inspirational teacher and communicator. Partly, he just didn’t have the luxury for slow, expansive thought: he wrote copiously in the gaps between coaching young composers and instrumentalists, running courses on chamber music, reading new scores and attending concerts. Once he joined the BBC, he was a full-time editor, producer, broadcaster and administrator. His mind worked best in the heat of immediate controversy. He loved a sparring partner and his brightest interventions are sparks that fly from the friction of disagreement. Grasping this, Garnham and Woodhouse have framed Keller as a provocateur at the centre of a web of complex musicological issues, the ever energising protagonist in a story of rapid and momentous cultural change. Quoting extensively from letters, essays and reviews, lectures, drafts and memos, they hand over the writing of the book to Keller himself, directing him from the sidelines, weaving his ebullient script into a tight narrative line. Here Keller is back in his element.
The source of Keller’s energy and drive was what he called ‘musical truth’, the revelation of a metaphysical reality deeper than anything accessible to other art forms. Like the aficionados in Lorca’s essay ‘Play and Theory of the Duende’, he was indifferent to music in which the daemon had not made its appearance; and there was no middle way – it was either there or it wasn’t. Technique was no guarantor of the beauty he was after and could be a serious impediment to it. To convey the greatness of Mendelssohn, you must work against the music’s almost fatal facility, its deceptive smoothness. Peter Pears was a wonderful singer because of, not despite, the peculiarity of his voice. Stylistic genre had nothing to do with it: the musical spirit was as likely to manifest itself in Julius Patzak singing Die Fledermaus or in a song by Gershwin or the incomparable Sonnie Hale, as in the Busch Quartet playing late Beethoven. (‘Lowbrows of the world, unite!’)
The possibilities for musical falsehood were many and distressing. Keller’s combativeness, the at times relentless urgency of his emphasis, express not only the ecstasy of one proclaiming the gospel but an unappeasable anxiety lest the spirit die through neglect, misunderstanding, heresy. The excitement Keller felt at the mind-blowing expansion of the listening universe set going by the technologies of sound reproduction and radio came with a constant fear for the delicacy of the revelation that had somehow to be thus amplified, and he can often seem like a man attempting to carry a votive light across a windswept field. A doctrine of reticence was more suited to this religion than the mass baptisms of the Radio 3 daily schedule. What the spirit of music needed was quiet attention to detail, focused inspiration and responsiveness to the spontaneity of the moment, an alert listening for nuance – above all, a thinking ‘in’ music rather than ‘about’ it. Saturday afternoons at Oskar Adler’s, in a word, of which he wrote: ‘The string quartet is “between ourselves”, a confidential communication from the composer to the players, and then between the players; the listener is the more or less welcome eavesdropper.’
The conditions necessary for musical epiphany weren’t easy to convene. Three things had to be lined up: composer, performer and listener. If the composition was poor, you had nothing, but if it was good, it could be lost in an ignorant performance, and if the performance was equal to the composition, the listener had to know how to listen. With admirable logic, Keller gave his mind to each stage of the process. In all three activities – composing, performing and listening – the ear was king. Contemporary idioms that looked good on the page, or could be shown to yield intricate structures through purely visual analysis, were deeply suspect. ‘The aesthetic significance of serialism stands and falls with its audibility,’ he declared, and he warned young composers to be wary of the difference between ‘the phonic and the phoney’. In his painstaking and solicitous advice to performers, Keller was at his best. The task of the performer was to release the work into utterance – to articulate musical syntax through a detailed and loving attention to patterns of accentuation.
Where composers and performers could be taught, listeners were a law unto themselves. Glock and Keller, like Adorno, were deeply exercised by the thought of the new mass audience’s untutored ear for serious music. Before the gramophone and the wireless, listening had been confined to the concert hall or the drawing room, where music disclosed itself in evanescent, singular events. The gramophone record lifted the performance out of the flow of time and fixed it, turning the fleeting revelation of truth into a thing, a saleable commodity. Among musicians, records (‘faked performances’) were responsible for a loss of ‘instinctive memorising’ and a disastrous decline in ‘spontaneous risk-taking’. For listeners, the disturbing ubiquity of music could only result in inattention, since music was, of all art forms, the most conducive to passivity. Glock worried that Radio 3 was turning great music into wallpaper. Keller shuddered at the thought of people listening to music while doing something else: Verklaerte Nacht had become – God forbid – the music ‘to the accompaniment of which children nowadays do their homework and grown-ups their income tax’. (An irresistible scene: ‘“Oh Daddy!”, exclaimed Cyril, looking up from his quadratic equations, ‘if I am not much mistaken, that’s an inverted ninth chord!”’)
In notes for a lecture he gave in Vienna in 1973, Keller proposed a quixotic remedy for the ‘qualified despair’ he felt at the degeneration of listening: ‘If we can bring ourselves to learn and practise the art of not listening to the radio, of turning it off … radio can become a cultural force of unprecedented potency.’ It was the task of ‘us radio people’, as he put it, to construct programmes ‘in a way which turns background listening into a very difficult task’. Fifty years later, this seems heroically quaint. Keller’s island of Reithian paternalism was soon to be swept away by a digital tsunami. We now live in a world of unlimited musical choice, the world of the playlist, a customer-centred world of which the bureaucrats who wrote ‘Broadcasting in the Seventies’ couldn’t even dream.
The technical reproducibility of music changed its nature, but not perhaps as destructively as Keller feared. It’s possible to think that he overstated the effect of recording on the ontology of performance, unable to see that, paradoxically, the once-off can be repeatable – that, when we listen to a recorded performance, we re-enter the stream of time and experience anew the felicities of improvisation and momentary inspiration. Moreover, there’s nothing to stop us listening attentively, and we can still make music as they did in Adler’s salon. But Keller was surely right that the impact of technology on music made the question of literacy more pressing. If so many people could now hear great music – a wonderful thing, for sure – how were they to learn to understand it?
His answer to this was stumped by a contradiction, an ambiguity in the very nature of music. Writing of the effect of familiarity on pieces of music that were once hard to understand, he observed: ‘The enjoying ear misses frictions of essential structural importance.’ Enjoyment versus understanding: it’s a fascinating opposition, as if music were at once too easy and too difficult of access, self-evident yet recondite, speaking directly to the minds and hearts of everyone yet hermeneutically opaque to all but the technically initiated. Keller railed against the necessity of music criticism – ‘Music explains itself, and I don’t believe in explanations of explanations’ – yet spent his life trying to communicate his experiences of music to composers, instrumentalists and listeners. Thirty-five years after his death, we are no closer to resolving the contradiction, unable to decide whether music is primarily pleasure or revelation, or both, and unwilling to put in the time or resources required to come up with an answer.