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.
The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.
Vol. 17 No. 18 · 21 September 1995
Robin Holloway’s review of my edition of Hans Keller’s Essays on Music (LRB, 3 August) is a true pièce de résistance, though as much in the Freudian sense as in the conventional one. On the one hand, its length and impressive commitment lead inexorably and grandly to a ringing verdict of comprehensive failure; on the other hand, readers are bound to ask whether it is not curiously ‘in excess of the necessary’ to devote three lavish pages to a judgment which could be delivered in three succinct lines: ‘Notwithstanding a debt of gratitude built up a quarter of a century ago which I hereby acknowledge, I can find nothing of any value in Keller’s tortuous scribblings beyond half a dozen aphorisms’.
Of course, an informed majority might reasonably agree with some of Holloway’s strictures over a figure who dominated London musical life for almost forty years. There was indeed a stark contrast between the companionable and caring private man and the infuriating public oracle whose sardonic wit sometimes seemed less Krausian than merely oppressive: both figures jostle for control over the literary style. It is true that some of the essays breathe the vanished earnestness of the Fifties – Keller would have been one of Auden’s ‘twelve-tone boys’; it is certainly possible to challenge some of the analyses and question their scope; and especially in the later years one can see that Keller’s musical concerns ossified, so that recapitulation too often took the place of exposition (providing an incurable headache for at least this editor). All this being so, it might even be asked: why bother to resist Holloway? Why not just agree that, sad as it may seem, Hans Keller (1919-85) has had his day?
These questions deserve answers. For a start, Holloway allows his irritation with style to cloud his awareness of what Keller actually said. Here is his anguished reaction to the opening essay, ‘Problems in Writing about Music’: ‘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 fruit under glass.’ Since he supports this wholesale anathematising with three extracts derived from later chapters (they are all perfectly coherent in context), the reader is left no wiser as to what the ‘problems’ are, and whether or not they are worth sharing.
So here, in Keller’s words, is a précis of the essay’s argument: ‘the “art” of music criticism has been invented as a shield behind which one can write about oneself without anybody noticing anything amiss unless he wants to,’ whereas ‘in proportion as one experiences and so understands a work of art, one loses interest in its evaluative criticism.’ With a new work, however, ‘evaluation is impossible without the standards the new upsets,’ so that ‘great art tends to be early and realistic criticism to come late.’ ‘Art, as opposed to a student’s exercise, is not intended to be good, anyway: it is created in order to get something across, ‘whereas badness is, ‘essentially, unoriginality’. In practice good critics ‘come to realise, with a succession of ever intenser shocks, that many of their most realistic evaluations do … harm’ and either ‘achieve nothing’ or ‘retard … development’; so that there is ‘no chance’ of a critic’s ‘leading a harmless existence as a writer on music if the responsibilities isolated [here] are not constantly born in mind’.
Precise, logical, paradoxical and even provocative all this certainly is, but in a positive sense: as the psychoanalytic undertones suggest (Keller’s ‘responsibilities’ demanded self-knowledge ‘as a precondition for an undistorted understanding and appreciation of the outer world’), it argues for criticism with a humane face. It also exposes a dynamic theory of musical reception which is developed as the Essays unfold.
Holloway, though, regrettably lacks the patience Keller advocates. Indeed, there is not a single chapter or issue which he addresses satisfactorily, hell-bent to deliver his closing execration as he seems to be. As it would take six pages of the LRB to contrast reviewer and the reviewed point by point (especially over Functional Analysis, history, repertoire and ‘pure Puritanism’), let me instead examine just one central issue.
In attempting to resist Keller’s theory of musical communication, Holloway unwittingly avails himself of his opponent’s weapons. Keller’s theory indeed posited that musical communication lies in the ‘foreground’ of ‘meaningful contradiction of expectations’ (the interrupted cadence, for example). However, it also necessarily admitted the ‘background’ fulfilment of expectations (the final cadence). Indeed, it was because of this tension that Keller described his thought as ‘two-dimensional’. Ironically, though, it is a lack of just this tension which Holloway imputes to Keller and then challenges. More ironically still, Holloway seems unaware that Keller held the very dynamic view of history he favours, whereby meaningful contradiction (foreground) for one generation became standard practice (background) for the next (interrupted cadences, for example, catch us by surprise in Mozart, but form the stitching of Wagnerian music drama).
Even past questions of substance, the review’s errors and contradictions (not to mention red herrings) come thick and fast. To take the two opening paragraphs alone: ‘Haydn to Brahms’ could not just be the ‘specifically musical repertoire’ of someone who wrote detailed analyses of Schoenberg’s chamber music and works by Shostakovich (a quartet), Britten (an ‘FA’), Stravinsky (a complete serial analysis of the Dylan Thomas setting) and others, but none (for good reasons) on Brahms. Keller did not put opera – or the opera he cared about – on the ‘back seat’, but (as the end notes of the Essays testify) wrote voluminously on the stage work of Schoenberg and Britten. And although the classical field toiled by the English analyst Tovey indeed overlapped with that of Keller (who was excited thereby to some misplaced contempt) it was not ‘exactly the same’ in any meaningful sense. Keller preoccupied himself more obsessively with chamber music, and would never have edited the Beethoven Piano Sonatas.
The saddest aspect of this altogether rather ‘sad spectacle’, though, is that many of the positive qualities of the Essays whose alleged absence the review laments are in fact there. Although Keller is wronged by what Holloway writes, I do not believe that were he alive he would have been angered by it for long: there is too much common ground of genuinely musical concern between the two parties. For his own sake, therefore, if not for everyone else’s, I urge Holloway, in all kindness, to return to the book and quite simply try again.
King’s College, London
Vol. 17 No. 20 · 19 October 1995
It is sometimes difficult to persuade the angry recipient (or other reader) of a bad review that one means what one says, has thought as carefully about the weight and tone of the words as about the arguments and judgments one is making; and has also pre-empted as fully as possible the inevitable objections. In short, one writes responsibly. Every criticism made by Christopher Wintle (Letters, 21 September) of my review of Hans Keller’s essays can I believe be answered by attentive perusal of what I wrote – checked if need be by reference to the book itself, if my quotations from it or descriptions of other bits do not give satisfaction. I’m sorry only that a paragraph in warm commendation of Wintle’s editorial work – for the copious end-notes are richer in range and provide better nourishment than the main text – was cut from my review (not by me) for reasons of space. But since he complains that I took too long to say not very much, he hasn’t much foot-hold here!
Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge