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.

My personal recollections of him at this time are vivid. I had long admired the public provocateur in print, on the air, and at guru-sessions on the lawn during long sunny afternoons at the Dartington summer school. Grinding to a halt as composer in my mid-twenties, I applied to him for help. As with Leavis, public bellicosity disguised personal courtesy and attentiveness to the individual, however unimportant. He always had time and advice to spare. The preliminaries to our meeting were not propitious. I forget whether I’d lost my glasses before or after passing out, from sheer nervous tension, in a West End department store (to enjoy all the embarrassing pleasure of attendance from a nursing staff with not enough to do). When I wobbled off to keep our appointment in a BBC pub I was beside myself with apprehension. Keller couldn’t have been kinder or more solicitous; perhaps secretly amused by such juvenile fragility, but taking its every manifestation to heart. Many musicians must have received comparable treatment. At the end came a diagnosis (‘Brahms’) and an invitation to work with him prefaced with a characteristic challenge: to write anything and everything that came into my head with no censorship on grounds of quality or taste, nor even, necessarily, any attempt to ‘compose’ it – simply, in my own good time, to make a mess, then return to him with it all; and he’d be ready. Such terrifying freedom was unbearable. I strained, and squeezed out only wretched fragments of stilted inhibition. Then, somehow, the knot dissolved; I began to compose more freely, tentative at first, then more confident, then suddenly in spate. So the pages of free association were never produced. By a marvellously simple strategy his intervention had all by itself done the trick.

Some years later we did work together, to sort out a five-minute talkette for Radio Three, of which he himself was a past master. I submitted two proposals. The second, which contravened his favourite notion (of which more later) that music proceeds through meaningful contradiction of expectations, he understandably rejected. The first, a gangling attempt at a compositional credo, he took on board so long as it was rethought from top to toe. His help with this shows his mind so sharp – or blunt – in sureness and acumen that I cannot forbear to quote. The first inspissated draft bears brusque editorial comment (‘non sequitur’, ‘no need to be incomprehensible’ etc) and a distinctive formulation: ‘Nature and art: you don’t define the fundamental difference. The one only communicates if you project meaning on to it; the other communicates.’ After several rewrites I received a letter making nine precise staccato points with, elegantly placed at halftime, the inevitable challenge: ‘if I can’t write a clear summary of your talk, who can? I bet you (£5, even bet) you yourself can’t. Will you accept the challenge? You would be the judge.’ ‘If you wish,’ the letter concluded, ‘we’ll meet and start knocking it into shape (repeat: shape). It will take hours.’ Who could resist such a call to order? We met; it did take hours; and the eventual result is probably not worth the expenditure of his brilliance on my alluvial mud. But this, too, was a lesson, efficacious and unforgettable, which opened up, as deftly as its precursor had composition, a potential for writing about music that I have followed ever since.

So I turned with personal gratitude as well as disinterested desire for excellence to this first posthumous collection of Hans Keller’s voluminous writings. What is left twenty-odd years after the heyday, when the fighting is done, the causes won (or sometimes lost) and the lustre of a charismatic personality has departed? Thirty-nine articles (oddly designated ‘chapters’) are gathered, centring on 21 about individual composers – several each on Schoenberg and Britten, and one-offs on, inter alia, Haydn, Beethoven (the Choral Fantasia), Brahms (resistances to), Wagner (‘Tristan and the Realism of Adolescence’), Elgar (the Progressive) and Stravinsky. This central section is framed by five grouped together as ‘Criticism’, and followed by another 13 called ‘Towards a Theory of Music’. These are Christopher Wintle’s categories, and his Preface remarks ‘a continuity’ within Keller’s thought: ‘the concerns of one essay often lead into those of the next.’ This is certainly true but turns out to be an ambiguous advantage. Keller’s ‘continuity’ could also be seen as obsessional and narrow; in particular, the endless recourse to the same examples diminishes the initial impression of wide horizons.

But the reservations go far deeper than this. The first essay, ‘Problems in Writing about Music’, is unfortunately prognostic. The impression it gives, confirmed throughout with little alleviation, is of factitious verbal precision, logic-chopping, a word-wasting that belies the oft-declared economy, all busily fussing at an awfully small nugget of paradox or provocation, and more often than not couched in psychoanalytic jargon that by now seems as dated as wax fruits under glass. When we have a mind of acknowledged brilliance assiduously devoting itself to a small core of central repertoire we look for insights, whether sustained or in aphoristic flashes; and more, for the power to encapsulate the essence of a composer’s or a piece’s individual personality, heart and brain, what the music communicates and how it does so. Take three characteristic samples.

Tchaikovsky’s music is, in fact, the opposite of ego-centric; it’s id-centric and superego-centric, and often concentrates on the conflict between these two centricities. As a result, where the music sounds most personal, most intensely charged with emotion, it is, in fact, at its most impersonal: so far as our ids are concerned, we are basically pretty much alike, and the question of personality no longer arises – or does not yet arise.

This on the ‘Schubert-snob’ (who ‘pretends he likes’ the composer’s repetitions, replacing the ‘anti-Schubert snob who used to turn up his nose’ at them):

The snob, any snob, is spontaneously convinced that repeatability is proportionate to the complexity of what is being repeated. His instinctive criterion, after all, is his own unconfessed incomprehension: as soon as something is difficult to understand, it deserves repetition. Inevitably, therefore, the Schubert snob who has to like Schubert’s repetitions points to an illusion – the complexity of Schubert’s deceptive simplicity: genuine simplicity is the one thing which he – like his predecessor, the anti-Schubert snob – can’t take, depending as he does on understanding what you can’t.

And this, on resistances to Brahms:

Since ... the sensitive, but resistant listener or player is aware not only of Brahms’s identification with Beethoven, but of his self-therapeutic identification with Bach, he proceeds to blame Brahms for both not being a Beethoven and not being a Bach. The fact is that Bach and Beethoven apart, there are very few composers around who are either – few, at the same time, who get anywhere near Brahms’s monumental genius. It follows that it is Brahms’s genius he is reproached with, and nothing else.

The work on Mozart brings out something more irksome than this, because it is concerned to crunch notes not words (interestingly, all the Mozart essays appear in the ‘Theory’ section). Here Freud and Schoenberg join hands in unlucky collusion: the master’s petty accidents and slips of the pen are heavily interpreted along the lines of Psychopathology of Everyday Life, in a general aura of look-at-me cleverness. I feel I know less about Mozart, understand him more imperfectly than ever, after raising a bruised head from such a hammering. Schoenberg solus predictably elicits the tone of conspiracy and private ownership – together with sermons and exhortations to the Great Unwashed – which, among his advocates, has still not been dissipated by any wider enjoyment of his music. Schoenberg and Mozart collide to bad effect in the once-notorious ‘Strict Serial Technique in Classical Music’; forty years on it fails to convince. Two subjects likelier to bear fruit, ‘Key Characteristics’ and ‘Knowing Things Backwards’, are sketched in with disconcerting superficiality, for all their strident orchestration.

And so it goes on. The nuggets of wit and wisdom that truly gleam gold are few and far between. Indeed, most can be quoted here; passing remarks that arrest the attention and continue to ramify in the mind until they become part of one’s understanding of artistic matters in general. Glazunov, ‘helped by his detailed and delicate knowledge’ (of the violin, evinced in his concerto), ‘and his ruthless lack of emotional inhibitions’. ‘When I first heard the music’ – the Harry Lime theme – ‘I at once detested it – as if it were important enough to be detested. As soon as I detest something I ask myself why I like it.’ ‘Confidence and doubt – this is the truly creative conflict. Amongst the false, you find neither confidence nor doubt, but arrogance and insecurity.’ ‘The music of the greatest composers has always evinced the greatest stylistic impurities; in fact, in our musical culture there seems to be only one composer of genius who has a pure style – Gluck; and the purity of his style seems to be the only thing that is wrong with his music.’ ‘To show mastery is to be as clear and short as possible (which may be long).’ It is good to learn from the editor’s Introduction that ‘the papers in the estate contain a large number of delightfully focused aphorisms’, since this is clearly what Keller did best.

Behind the specific topics – binding them together on common ground with shameless self-repetition – lie a couple of wider theoretical ‘laws’. I’ve referred already to the first, that musical communication consists in the meaningful contradiction of expectations. This idea, at first impressively all-embracing, becomes more puzzling the more one reflects, and eventually casts as much darkness as light. For there is at least as good a case for saying that music fulfils what it sets up, in whatever style or epoch, be it Machaut, Handel, Bruckner or Boulez. The listener might be all at sea the first time, but even by the second (or with another work by the same composer heard for the first time), expectation gives something to go on, something which can be clung to as guide for comprehension, and which can only increase with mounting familiarity. And if this is true for the music of Romantic individuality and contemporary idiosyncrasy, how much more so for the epochs of common practice, and above all for the area of sanctified Austro-German classics from which Keller’s First Law derives. It’s not just that we know for certain that a Haydn string quartet will not contain Bartókish effects, any more than it will break its contemporary code of stylistic practice. Nor, in a classical symphony, is a singer going to pop up after three instrumental movements to sing a song for the finale. (Moreover, when the expected conventions are broken – as in the first ever irruption of vocal into abstract in Beethoven’s Choral Symphony – such an event, if ‘meaningful’ and not merely freakish, can achieve expectedness in the end, to become a new resource, sometimes special, sometimes becoming the basis of new conventions, as in Mahler.) But the point lies deeper: the initial gestalt comes with its future latent within it, the movement’s, or indeed the entire work’s subsequent course being a matter of detailed exploration of implications, fulfilling expectations with maximum inventiveness, making potential actual. This is as true for a tight worker (Haydn, say) as for a discursive (Schubert) or a mould-filler (Dunstable) or process-maker (Reich). The combination of relevance and fantasy in a Haydn working-out follows from the nature (and the particular donnée) of what he sets up, just as the rhapsody of the Liszt Sonata follows from the character of his themes and the metamorphoses to which they are then subjected, and the unrolling weave of Wagner’s leitmotivic texture follows from his evident, explicit intentions, embodied from the outset in his chosen kind of musical material.

The same reservations, with a different emphasis, apply to Keller’s other law, for whose demonstration he devised the once notorious ‘Functional Analysis’. This idea is characteristically logical. Music being a wordless language of highly-elaborated abstract usage which expresses its whole content in terms of itself, verbal exegesis can only be approximate, either off-puttingly technical or belletristically adjectival. Musical analysis should be conducted within the medium of music. Words are employed in discussing a poem; so why not use a musical work’s own notes as the means of dissecting its structure? And here Keller always has the explicitly Schoenbergian aim of showing the hidden unity behind apparent contrasts, whose integration is as much what makes the masterpiece as its ‘meaningful denial of expectation’.

Hence the 14 Functional Analysis scores (hardcore Viennese classics except for a Brandenburg and a Britten), in which the original is played complete, with analytic links between its movements, the whole then framed within an exegetic prelude and postlude. All the extra material is fashioned out of the original, re-angled to bring out relationships both direct and oblique, across the span of several movements which on the face of it couldn’t be more differentiated. F. A. is a fascinating idea; also a creative one, betraying in Keller the frustrated composer who couldn’t (any more than Adorno and for rather the same party reasons) have practised what it oddly resembles, the tendency in 20th-century music to dislocate and re-assemble, mock and love, X-ray, devour, possess a style from the past and sometimes an actual piece or group of pieces. Out in the open with Stravinsky (after such widely-discrepant precursors as Brahms, Mahler, Debussy, Satie) this avid cannibalism has by now become a commonplace, whose artistic results range from the sublime to the abject. By now it can be better understood than in its early days, as a more historically panoramic version of what music has always done – remake itself out of the same fundamentals, simultaneously recycling yet evolving. It used to be called tradition and be handed down with pious reverence; now it’s called polystylism or Post-Modernism, and implies cheek and insouciance. But there was rudeness enough in the old – subversion, rapine, pillage; and the new if scratched can reveal love and homage as well as naughtiness.

Functional Analysis resembles all this; also another more specialised venture of our time, the restoration of torsos, whether in scholarly ‘performing versions’ such as (to mention only comparatively modern works) Mahler’s Tenth, Schoenberg’s Jakobsleiter, Ives’s Universe, Act Three of Berg’s Lulu, or, in a more fantastical and freewheeling way, exemplified in Busoni’s Fantasia Contrappuntistica (on Bach’s unfinished Art of Fugue) or Berio’s play with the fragmentary material of Schubert’s Tenth Symphony. But F.A., which might work well as Free Association, too, comes out instead as laboured, pedantic and obvious. If only Keller had had the courage of his quasi-creative insights and written with the economy and clarity of his best English. I’ve played carefully and obediently through the sample included in this volume (of Mozart’s A Minor Piano Sonata K.310), to be in the end stupefied at something so patiently, patently trivial. The connections made are not in the slightest profound; it’s all puns and accidents; silly ones, not the stuff of ‘Everyday Life’.

The trouble lies in Keller’s poor view of what the listener can take out from music, as well as what the composer can put in. High-calibre composing in any idiom is achieved by an artist’s intensive concentration, however subconscious, on his own procedure, even when the Schubert, Rossini, Wolf in question is habitually in a burning hurry. A specific clot of material is in play, much of it stereotyped and formulaic. Naturally it will be germane to itself, and throw up contrasts (if contrasts are needed – they aren’t obligatory) that are pertinent, not arbitrary. ‘Unity’ can be laid on with a trowel, but is more often supple and organic, and sometimes evasive, even fugitive. Its appreciation is a matter of intuition as much as knowledge – one feels ‘this is right, here; that’s a good twist; that’s really neat’ (etc, etc – gormless phrases for complex processes of pleasure and perception). It can be interesting to have such delicate apprehensions explored and confirmed by sensitive analysis; though if they are not already nascent, the music is not being fully heard. But of these intimate relations between composer and listener, Functional Analysis shows not a trace. A very few elementary connections are underlined with crashing obviousness, while the subtle truths escape. In all cases the original work flings its contrasts around more freely and integrates them with greater audacity, disdaining pun and paradox except where they, too, have aesthetic and expressive value.

The failure both of the grand formulations and of their practical demonstration can be attributed to Keller’s lack of respect for music’s history; his shortsighted (not to say chauvinistic) repertoire; his narrow conception of what music is for and what it can do; and an underestimation of its listeners (and also his readers) so marked as to be fairly called condescending. These are grave indictments; Keller-like, I will amplify them one by one.

History for him is mediocre, pedantic, dead facts on dusty shelves. No more than he would I advocate the advancement of bores and precursors in the general move to raise the wrecks, rightly sunk by time, that has become still more prevalent since his heyday. But recognition of and respect for the vital importance of convention in the great masters of his canon is another thing – it’s respect for the facts of life. These composers are not post-Schoenbergian. Even when Beethoven breaks the moulds and Schubert floods over into new lands, elements of usage are paramount; elsewhere they are quintessential, and this music would not exist without them any more than architecture without its laws and orders. The classical style in both is a balance of pattern and formula with idiosyncrasy and individual inventiveness. It follows that interconnections, recyclings, resemblances, relationships, will be normative rather than exceptional. But because Keller seems not to acknowledge this evident truth (ordinary though it is), he attributes overweening importance to material and procedures that are in fact formulaic (indeed ‘expected’), reading into them significances that cannot be sustained. In his anti-historic stance – born of a hangover from the High Romantic premium on uniqueness induced by Wagner, Mahler, Schoenberg, not to mention Strauss, whom he so disdained – Keller simply doesn’t want to see this at all, let alone see it as fundamental.

His repertoire is almost parodistically Teutonic, apart from the special prominence in the pantheon of Britten. Tchaikovsky and Glazunov figure briefly, and Elgar’s covert progressiveness is used as a stick with which to tease his English reputation. Shostakovich, Gershwin and Stravinsky are all present, though the essays ostensibly concerning them manage to be as much about Schoenberg as anything else. Robert Simpson and Peter Maxwell Davies are given such occluded treatment that one might be forgiven for not recognising them at all.

But it is the holes that I deplore. Bach is a pious shadow rather than a solid substance; the rest of the Baroque is altogether absent. So are whole centuries of glorious polyphony, and among much else the entire musical cultures of Italy and France. Now of course Keller doesn’t set out to cover all music, and says that he won’t write about what he doesn’t understand. Chauvinism is therefore not explicit. But the stance is so excessively omniscient that any omission has the force of an accusation. By implication Monteverdi and Verdi (say), and Dvorák and Debussy and Mussorgsky and Sibelius – the list could be endlessly extended – because they aren’t understood by Hans Keller, aren’t worth understanding. This wouldn’t matter if the essays on canonic figures offered greater value. Schenker and Tovey concentrated on a comparably compact repertoire (though they did include Chopin); and a more recent example of a study tilling the same endlessly interesting field to rich effect – Charles Rosen’s Classical Style – has joined its precursors to become classic in its own right. But simply to mention these writers is to lay bare the impoverished yield of Keller’s pen for all its activity. He is too proud to descend to mere helpfulness and too impatient to work his theories out into responsible and comprehensive form. And if the Keller essays here reprinted represent ‘understanding’, then one can after all be grateful for the xenophobia which considers the musical achievement of entire epochs and races not worth its attention.

The next point, Keller’s narrow conception of music’s aims and possibilities, follows from all this. He exemplifies a ‘pure Puritanism’ – I remember his objection to my using ‘crisp’ as an adjective to characterise a snatch of Stravinsky, because it was a metaphor from food. Luscious writing can certainly be awful; he had to combat a nation of purple-patchers, and we are still confronted with plenty of ‘creamy’ sopranos and ‘beefy’ brass-playing. But the purist attitude can deny a legitimate part of delight in art. Moreover, it can cut off the living metaphor whereby music is indeed mental refreshment, spiritual nourishment, solace in loneliness, depression and grief; not to mention its unique power to embrace communal rejoicing and effect communal catharsis. The narrow view eschews diversion high and low. But it wasn’t only the despicable Poulenc, Ravel and Fauré who devoted some parts of their not inconsiderable gifts to entertain or to tickle in hedonistic bliss. The culture of classical Vienna also pursued and attained musical joy, all the way from the gemütlich to the celestial (often enough within the same work). With the Romantics music can also become the licensed vehicle for fantasy, escapism, ecstasy, nirvana. But Keller’s prohibitions extend to the so-called ‘extra-musical’ with which the art has always shown so productive an affinity, whether in song, ballet, opera, tone-poem, or in the intrinsic language of laughter and tears, tension and release. Literature, the visual arts, nature, for all their manifest overlapping with music, are conspicuous by omission. Keller’s remark about Gluck, quoted earlier, could boomerang here: his purity is that of an antiseptic chamber, airless and sterile, where in music, divorced from the circumstances of, humanity through which it lives, dwindles into an etiolated abstraction.

And, ‘fourthly’, the condescension. Keller’s stance is flagrantly de haut en bas. He speaks as One Who Knows and Has Been There (Vienna, where he played in a string quartet alongside someone who knew a man whose brother-in-law had once shared a railway compartment with Schoenberg’s great-aunt – I exaggerate the circumstances, but not the tone). This desiderated figure then comes to tell the benighted English what they’ve missed, and how things ought to be – which, being suckers and born to inferiority-complexes in matters cultural, they lap up like dogs. His tone disdains modesty and straightforwardness. He insults the general listener’s capacity to hear, or his particular reader’s to read him, and alternates between emphasising the obvious and emitting hot air that, for all Keller’s flawless mastery of English, is very difficult to read – the jocularity is especially painful. Hectoring, bullying, patronising, indulging ferocious Functional Aggression under guise of truthtelling and Clapham Omnibus plain speech, it makes all in all an unedifying spectacle. Time brings in its whirligigs, and twenty years later all this is ‘public as Wembley’ to anyone who can disinterestedly distinguish between vinegar and wine.

It is also a very sad spectacle. For the vainglory, the narrowness, the contempt, the prevailing sense Keller exudes of futile discord and sterile ingenuity come check-by-jowl with outstanding gifts and a generous humanity, spirituality too, that, unlike the negatives, can scarcely be recognised in his printed words. He effected a dent in our musical consciousness that still smarts. What he might have achieved if his positive side had, like the destructive, been given its head, doesn’t bear conceiving.