Obituary: Minna Keal

THE COMPOSER Minna Keal was 80 years old by the time her first orchestral work was performed at the BBC Proms in 1989. Thereafter she attracted a devoted following, who flocked to hear both her contemporary output and the juvenilia composed before her forced departure from the Royal Academy of Music in 1929 to tend to the family business.

Once she achieved public recognition - with a performance of her Symphony given by the BBC Symphony Orchestra under her latter-day teacher Oliver Knussen, in the same memorable concert as the premiere of John Tavener's cello work The Protecting Veil - Keal threw herself into composition with enthusiasm. She claimed to treat her state pension as the equivalent of a student grant cheque and said: "I felt I was coming to the end of my life, but now I feel as if I'm just beginning. I feel as if I'm living my life in reverse."

Born in the East End of London into an impoverished immigrant family from the Grodno district of Russia (now in Poland) the young girl, who spoke only Yiddish until the age of three, listened to her mother's plaintive rendition of Hebrew folk songs. Her uncle Leibel, a self-taught violinist, entertained the family by playing Yiddish tunes. Keal herself had piano lessons and listened constantly to recordings of the great violin and operatic stars of the days.

Her parents ran a small Hebrew publishing and bookselling business in Petticoat Lane and, although her father died in 1926 when she was 16, Keal entered the Royal Academy of Music in 1928, where she studied with William Alwyn. But these were difficult times. Despite winning a bursary for composition in 1929 and hearing works of hers performed in public, Keal bowed to family pressure, and renounced her academic studies and promising career.

Her student works are particularly passionate and full of rich harmonies and vibrant melodies. Those that survive include a Fantasie in C minor for violin and piano, a Ballade in F minor for viola and piano and Three Summer Sketches for piano. The Ballade was first performed in 1929 by Philip Burton of the Griller Quartet. It was rediscovered by John White, violist of the Albinoni Quartet, who helped arrange for its publication in 1993. He recalls her exuberant enthusiasm whenever she heard the work played: "She was like an 18-year-old student hearing her first work played in public." The Ballade, which displays distinct elements of Keal's cultural heritage and the influence of the music she had enjoyed at home, has also been edited for cello and piano by the cellist Sandy Baillie.

During the Depression Keal worked with her mother to keep the family's finances on an even keel. By the mid-1930s married and with a son (the future historian Raphael Samuel), she still played the piano in private and some of her works were occasionally heard in concerts at the Jewish Institute.

As the Anschluss swept across Europe, she worked with local people in helping Jewish children fleeing from Nazi Germany. She threw herself into left-wing politics at the time of the Spanish Civil War and joined the British Communist Party in 1939, organising a branch of the party at the aircraft factory in Slough where she worked during the Second World War. Her first marriage broke down and she met a fitter, Bill Keal, who later became her second husband. There was a brief flicker of musical activity. Her Fantasy Sonata for viola and piano was performed at an Anglo-Soviet Friendship concert in 1942 and she sang in the Workers' Music Association choir.

During the 1960s, while working in the fur trade, Keal resumed piano lessons and after her retirement in 1969 began taking a few pupils herself. But the Indian summer of her life came when she met the composer Justin Connolly, an Associated Board piano examiner who was testing one of her pupils. After seeing some of her college work from the 1920s Connolly encouraged Keal to start writing again. Still hesitant, she was given by her son composition lessons with Oliver Knussen, as a Christmas present in 1974. A string quartet, Lament, was completed four years later and a wind quintet came in 1980. Although these works bore scant resemblance to the romantic works she had produced a generation earlier, there was little or no demand among promoters for the music of an unknown septuagenarian.

Connolly and Knussen persisted with their pupil and in 1982 Minna Keal began work on her Symphony. The first three movements were heard at St John's Smith Square, London, in 1984 and the complete work broadcast from a studio performance four years later. But, when the Symphony was programmed at the BBC Proms in 1989, few could have guessed at its effect. Full of grit and power, the Symphony is based on an eight-note chord and employs a large percussion section. It was, she said, "about the turmoil of human existence and the spiritual search for serenity and permanence". Despite appearing alongside the premiere of Taverner's cello masterpiece, it was widely noticed and acclaimed by the public and critics alike.

For someone who studied in the days of Sir Edward Elgar suddenly to produce works contemporary to the last years of the century was an extraordinary feat. Keal was supported by both Connolly and Knussen, who helped her to "catch up" on such 20th-century composers as Bartk and Shostakovich who had so richly contributed to the repertoire since her college days.

Cantillation, for violin and orchestra, came in 1991 (premiered by the European Women's Orchestra and Odaline de la Martinez) and was followed by a Cello Concerto, first performed at the Snape Proms in August 1994 by Sandy Baillie with the City of London Sinfonia. Six years in writing, the 25-minute work was completed with only days to spare. Explaining how she approached her composition, Keal said:

The only thing I visualise is its length and what speeds the various movements are. I always find it hard work to get the notes right. I have to compose at the piano. I used to worry about this, but Justin [Connolly] told me that Stravinsky used to write at the piano.

Knussen also advised Keal on the Cello Concerto:

Oliver lent me scores of the Schumann Concerto, the two by Shostakovich, and Elgar's. Often Elgar will have the cellos supporting his soloist with just a few notes in unison. There are many subtle instances of that kind of support which you don't hear in concert, but you can see in the score.

Yet Keal was no regressivist. The Cello Concerto is a hard-hitting piece, worthy of its position as a major work of the last decade of the century.

Disarmingly modest, Keal enjoyed the overnight fame brought by the 1989 Proms premiere - "Everyone was so nice" - and candidly admitted to fears that she might be forgotten again. Those fears were unfounded. She played the part of the white-haired grandmother with perfection as musicians who were barely born when she retired came seeking advice.

A short piece for flute and clarinet, Duettino, followed for the Windsor Festival in 1996 and in March this year the Royal Academy of Music honoured its former pupil with a 90th birthday concert packed with friends and colleagues celebrating the composer who proved that you're never too old to make an impact.

Minnie (Minna) Nerenstein, composer: born London 22 March 1909; married 1933 Barnett Samuel (one son deceased; marriage dissolved), 1959 Bill Keal (died 1995); died 14 November 1999.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
art
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
News
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
people
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

music
Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Game of Thrones will run for ten years if HBO gets its way but showrunners have mentioned ending it after seven

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
Mans Zelmerlow will perform 'Heroes' for Sweden at the Eurovision Song Contest 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Elizabeth (Heida Reed) and Ross Poldark (Aiden Turner) in the BBC's remake of their 1975 original Poldark

Poldark review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
    Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
    Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

    The only direction Zayn could go

    We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
    Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

    Spells like teen spirit

    A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
    Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
    Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

    Licence to offend in the land of the free

    Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
    From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

    From farm to fork in Cornwall

    One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
    Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

    Robert Parker interview

    The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor
    How to make your own Easter egg: Willie Harcourt-Cooze shares his chocolate recipes

    How to make your own Easter egg

    Willie Harcourt-Cooze talks about his love affair with 'cacao' - and creates an Easter egg especially for The Independent on Sunday
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef declares barbecue season open with his twist on a tradtional Easter Sunday lamb lunch

    Bill Granger's twist on Easter Sunday lunch

    Next weekend, our chef plans to return to his Aussie roots by firing up the barbecue
    Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

    Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

    The England prop relives the highs and lows of last Saturday's remarkable afternoon of Six Nations rugby
    Cricket World Cup 2015: Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?

    Cricket World Cup 2015

    Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?
    The Last Word: Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing