Donald Mitchell remembers Hans Keller

I only need to hear a few bars from Mozart’s G minor Symphony (K. 550) and in a flash Hans is as vivid a presence as he was when he was alive. Not any old bars, mind you: to be precise, bars 125 to 136 of the finale, where in a remarkable unison passage which propels us into the development Mozart exploits (almost) the total resources of the chromatic scale.

Hans thought it to be a presage, a harbinger, of serial organisation, as had Heinrich Jalowetz and Luigi Dallapiccola before him: Hans and I had published an article on Don Giovanni by Dallapiccola in Music Survey in December 1950, which had brought Jalowetz’s observation to our attention. One might argue about the prophetic dimension, but what is indisputable is the extraordinary intensity and compression of the music. It was the kind of explosive moment in music which Hans relished, and about which he always found something interesting to say. I can’t hear those bars now without thinking of him. I hear them, so to speak, through his ears.

I can think of many other such moments which would similarly excite Hans, when his generous moustache would quiver, his eyes – remarkable eyes – glow, and a smile of pleasurable recognition surface on his lips. There was another Mozartian characteristic – entries on (or from) the dominant minor – which gave rise to just such acknowledgment and was one of the tests by which Hans judged, say, a singer’s musicality. I was not at all surprised to find that this was one of the points Hans was to make in his 75th-birthday tribute to Peter Pears, published in 1985. His salute opened with one of those magisterial rebukes, ‘Every musician knows that normally singers are amongst the most unmusicianly, if not indeed unmusical, members of our profession,’ but went on to praise Pears (as Ferrando in Cosi) for something that Hans had always remembered: ‘his deeply moving dominant-minor entries (yes, each of them was different) in the A major duet with Fiordiligi: in my lifetime he has been the only performer with a deep insight into what the dominant minor meant to Mozart.’

I continue to look out for dominant-minor entries in Mozart performances and if they are insufficiently felt or badly executed, then I feel a sense of threefold outrage: on behalf of the composer, Hans and myself. It is a reaction that teaches us something about how closely related was Hans’s analytical thinking to performances and performing – something, of course, of which one is particularly aware in the study of the Haydn quartets which appeared last year.[*]

At the very start of what seems to me to be the most important of Hans’s books – at least of those published to date – he makes clear that he is addressing primarily the player – i.e. a string and quartet player – who alone can comprehend what, for Hans at any rate, was the ‘secret science’ of the string quartet. It is impossible, he suggests, ‘for any outstanding instrumentalist’ who is not a member of the magic string quartet circle ‘to understand a quartet player’s string quartet in all its intended dimensions; likewise, it is impossible for a composer, however great, to write an intrinsic string quartet if he himself is not a quartet player: the quartets of Brahms, Schumann, Debussy, Ravel, and yes, Bartok are more than adequate evidence.’

The somewhat daunting (and excluding) exclusivity of this approach – and in any case is the proposition true? – might discourage some readers who are not players from grappling with Hans’s text, which would be the greatest pity because the book offers us the most detailed account available not only of Haydn’s quartets but of Hans as incomparable teacher and coach – activities which, after his retirement from the BBC, consumed so much of his energy and brought him untold satisfaction. Here he is, in full flow, on the Adagio of Haydn’s B flat major Quartet, Op. 64, No 3:

In the Adagio, the second violin has to listen to its balance very carefully: it mustn’t forget that its solo bars in the principal section proceed under the first’s held notes, in aural view of which textural relation there is no need whatever to force the dynamics (mezza voce) – the less so since the lower two play a purely accompanimental role too, entirely supportive. They as well as the leading second fiddle won’t, I trust, fall into what one might describe as the all too frequent first-bar trap: the aim of the first bar’s respective phrases is – needless to add by now, one hopes – the second. The antecedent-consequent relationship between the two fiddles is rendered more complex and subtle by the leader not being silent while the second violin speaks, while the second, together with the lower instruments, observes at least partial, respectful silence during the more flowering responses of the first – though carefully considered, the silences don’t cover the actual answers, but the ensuing upbeat phrases, which the three lower instruments should be heard to be glad to leave in peace; it is up to the first violin’s free phrasing thus to convey the lower instruments’ happiness! The silences should not, however, encourage the leader to indulge in unusual liberties; what one hopes are his usual liberties will be quite enough.

Lucky players, lucky pupils! And lucky too even those of us who are not string quartet players or composers. Everybody, in my view, can learn something from, as it were, overhearing Hans think about music and its performance at this exceptional level.

Moreover, as one would expect of a musician for whom interpretation and analysis were virtually indistinguishable, the text continually throws up arresting analytic or historical insights and comments. For example, this on the finale of the C major Quartet, Op. 54, No 2: ‘The work’s most shattering and, if I may so put it, untimely innovation is, of course, the adagio finale, which turns the typical symphonic structure with two allegros upside down, throwing up two adagios instead. History books credit the 19th century with the symphony’s slow final movement, whether it came about by accident (Bruckner’s unfinished Ninth) or design (Tchaikovsky, Mahler). To my inadequate knowledge, not a single historian has noticed that Haydn was responsible for introducing this new symphonic form.’ Or this vintage bit of Kellerian paradox which startles one – performer or not – into a fresh perception of what a composer can get up to and how sophisticated and elaborate both our interpretative and auditory responses have to be. Hans is remarking on a case of ‘violent compression’ in the first movement of Op. 9, No 4, a consequence of which is that ‘transitional feeling flows over, pointedly has to flow over in performance, into the opening stage of the second subject, which therefore must not be allowed ever to settle down despite its well-established relative major key. For by the time it would have settled down (or has done so in the suppressed background), i.e. after the general pause, thematic definition leaves no doubt about the fact that we are approaching the main cadential stage, the end of the exposition: we have to be heard to have played the second subject that never happened.’ Hans’s italics, not mine, and a penetrating, wholly characteristic observation that combines practical instruction and analytic revelation. There was no one who could match Hans in this particular kind of commentary, which shows so well what he could accomplish with words, distrustful of them though he was when they were applied to music.

There are, needless to say, many oddities in the Haydn book – not only the credentials that one should ideally have in order to understand what Hans is writing about, but yet another bizarre hands-off injunction, this time to persuade players not to play, or attempt to play, the F sharp minor Quartet, Op. 50, No 4: ‘Haydn’s only supremely difficult quartet,’ we are told, for which reason Hans has relatively little to say about the work, whose challenging nature, on his own testimony, whets one’s appetite to know more. How was it, or why was it, that the supreme quartet composer seems bafflingly to have lost touch with his mastery of the ‘secret science’ and produced a quartet in which the ‘awkward bits’ preclude the possibility of adequate performance? Here, the conditions imposed by Hans the player seem frustratingly to get in the way of Hans the analyst.

But these are minor qualifications. The book, as Hans himself might have said, is a towering achievement, and fully justifies the prophetic remark to Hans’s teacher made by Franz Schmidt after hearing the youthful Keller participate in the performance – appropriately enough – of Haydn’s C major Quartet, Op. 64, No 1: ‘I can’t tell you what is going to become of this young musician, but one thing I can tell you: the world will know of him.’ And the world did. We come face to face with the prophecy on page 2 of Hans’s Preface and it would be a mistake to interpret it as an advertisement for himself. On the contrary, it is Hans laying his credentials on the line, for our inspection.

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[*] The Great Haydn Quartets: Their Interpretation. Dent, 272 pp., £16.95, May 1986, 0 460 004638 1.

[†] Criticism, edited and with an introduction by Julian Hogg. Faber, 166 pp., £4.95, 17 August, 0 571 14803 4.