Keller’s Causes

Robin Holloway

In his heyday, from the late Forties to around the start of William Glock’s regime at the Third Programme (afterwards Radio Three), Hans Keller’s vehement presence was a force for the good in English musical life. He represented at a high level old-style modern values – not exactly cosmopolitan (an important reservation to which I shall return) but emphatically not insular. In general he ground a Freudian axe, and his angle on his own specifically musical repertoire – the Austro-German sonata-tradition from Haydn to Brahms, with opera in the back seat, and lieder almost out of sight – was fervently Schoenbergian.

Not that the classical tradition had been exactly ignored or unappreciated here. Donald Tovey, dying in 1940, had built up since the turn of the century a body of commentary covering exactly the same field, and comparable, too, in being predominantly occasional – programme notes, encyclopedia entries, contributions to symposia and so on. Tovey’s work lacked a Grand Unified Theory, yet even now yields to none in profundity of understanding. But Keller’s personal accent was new; he also emphasised some older names which, still peripheral at that time to English taste, were, equally with the moderns, commanding subjects for major campaigning – Bruckner and Mahler above all, with Franz Schmidt and Hans Pfitzner as second strings. He was also involved with the post-Schoenbergian arm of the avant garde, crusading for worthy figures like Skalkottas the Greek, Dallapiccola the Italian, Mátyás Seiber the anglicised Hungarian, and such native-born composers who ventured to take up the 12-note system (dead ducks, as it turned out). This is all-of-a-piece; amidst it there is one surprise, the feverish championship of Britten, no dead duck for sure, but not at first glance related to the other concerns.

All this meant whamming into the then home-culture of the country that had taken in the refugee from Nazi Austria. Someone had to counter the flab and dead wood, and there was at that time no denunciation from within. Nevertheless, it’s possible to feel that the energy of aggression, the sheer blood-lust, was in excess of the necessary. There is a parallel with Leavis: an outsider (though native-born) equally uncompromised by tolerance or catholicity, who flayed shoddy thought and lowbrow values with a purifying zeal and high moral purpose that could be seen as censorious, even destructive.

Most of Keller’s causes have been resolved by now, and there is an inevitable air of datedness about these old battles. Polemic that remains readable after the issues are dead survives on its calibre as sheer writing – as ‘literature’. Such is the happy fate of Bernard Shaw, whose copious music criticism from the mid-1870s to the mid-1890s makes another interesting comparison. Shaw’s demolition of Victorian musical gentility and amateurism, alongside his mission to promote Wagner (not to mention his fight for acceptable standards in the performance of Mozart and his expert appraisal of Italian opera) remain timely, or timeless, though the occasions have passed. Shaw, like Keller, is aggressive, provocative, an unashamed self-presenter (in Shaw’s case self-promoter too, though of course not as musician); both are outrageously biased and flamboyantly exhibitionistic. The differences are that Shaw is wide-ranging, intellectually curious, humanly rich, sound in sense and judgment beneath the preaching, hectoring and banter; he is also exceedingly amusing. The spent causes live again because the writing lives, a classic of the genre. The appearance from a learned press of this handsome volume of Keller’s essays makes, implicitly, the same claim. I believe it cannot be sustained. The man’s magnetism was almost wholly personal; and I would like to evoke and celebrate it before turning in more detail to the book which so regrettably fails to enclose it.

During my teens and student days Hans Keller was already an established fact, stimulation personified, with an authority that seemed to emanate, via Freud and Schoenberg, from the Burning Bush, which made him vastly appealing to anyone possessing the juvenile desire to be told what to think. The unforgettable voice, ubiquitous in print and on the air, posed paradoxes, puns and provocations. ‘Hans Killer,’ oft-quoted in Pseuds’ Corner, became a sort of household name, if only as the current embodiment of a national stereotype, the intense, weird foreign genius, familiar as Herr Klesmer in George Eliot’s last novel and Otto Silenus in Evelyn Waugh’s first, not to mention cartoons in Punch from George du Maurier in the 1880s to ‘Pont’ and The British Character (of which Keller fused at least three – ‘Importance of Not Being an Alien’; ‘Importance of Not Being Intellectual’; ‘Failure to Appreciate Good Music’). His stance was certainly designed to invite hostility. But Pseud he was not. Even when (frequently) the manner and matter gave hostages to fortune, the underlying passion for things of the mind and spirit was unmistakable. And in one celebrated broadcast the drive towards clarity wholly subdued the tendency towards bossiness, just as his emphatic enunciation overcame a latent stammer, to produce a moving account of his escape from Nazi Vienna all the more effective for its dispassionate tone and the final lesson derived for a lifetime’s benefit from an early experience so terrible: ‘if, against all realistic expectations, I was going to survive, I would never again be in a bad mood ... Whenever there is motivation for a bad mood, it is enough for me to remind myself of this thought, and the attendant emotion comes back with it, the result being a grateful elation about being alive.’ It can be seen even from this brief instance that he made himself a master of exact English usage.

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