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.

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