Classical Music: Making a real nuisance of himself: Musical hoaxer, critical gadfly, football tactician - Bayan Northcott reassesses the paradox that was Hans Keller

Hans Keller
Friday 07 October 1994 23:02 BST

It is strange to reflect that, had he lived, the avant-garde Polish composer Piotr Zak would still be only 55. But then he never did - except for half an hour in the BBC's Third Programme on 5 June 1961. The announcer sounded sober enough: we were about to hear a new piece for electronic tape and two percussionists, exploiting 'velocity graphs and decibel indexes', and entitled Mobile. Zak's bings and bongs were duly broadcast twice, and reviewed, if for the most part pretty unfavourably, in the heavies over the next few days.

When it subsequently emerged that the thing was actually a hoax, knocked up at random by one of the BBC's newest music producers and an assistant in a studio full of percussion, there was quite a fuss. While the philistine press concluded it just proved modern music was junk, those critics who had been earnestly attempting to keep up with William Glock's open- door policy to the latest Continental trends felt stabbed in the back. And it was no use the perpetrator, Hans Keller, claiming that he had been trying to raise serious questions about the nature of musicality in an age of compositional breakdown and unmusical noise. The last person the British musical establishment was prepared to take seriously back in 1961 was Hans Keller.

Who did he think he was, this Groucho Marx lookalike with a heavy Austrian accent, suddenly bouncing up after the war to belabour his English critical colleagues not only for underrating such native geniuses as Elgar and Britten, but for failing even to use their own language properly? Actually, it was rather difficult to find out who he might be. Keller always claimed that biographies bored the pants off him and that he was too interested in the future to bother going back over the past. Only later in his life, from occasional articles and one harrowing talk in the Radio 4 series The Time of My Life, did the background to his, by then notorious and influential, personality begin to fall into place.

The seminal factor was surely his birth into a family of gifted amateur musicians in Vienna in 1919 - which meant his upbringing coincided with what was to prove the final phase of the great Austro- German tradition as a musical way of life. Participating as a precocious chamber player, he had apparently explored and memorised virtually the entire classical and romantic repertoire by his late teens. Then in 1938 came the Nazis. Rounded up and brutally interrogated with fellow- Jews, Keller seemed to face certain death. It is not surprising that, in the years following his unexpected release and escape to Britain, he invested almost as much effort in trying to understand the psychology of the 'enthusiastic collective sadism' to which he had been subjected, as in pursuing his musical interests.

Part of this involved psychoanalysing himself at length, from which he evidently concluded that, as he was imbued with as much aggression as the next man, he might as well put it to constructive use. And since, as he had painfully discovered, dehumanising collectivism was the enemy of all creative individuality, the only conclusion could be the injunction which, in one form or another, was to be impressed upon the myriad performers, writers and composers who passed through his hands over the ensuing decades: 'Now go out into your profession and make a bloody nuisance of yourself.' Nor were the collectivities, special interests and secret societies Keller himself attacked confined to music - ranging from the conformities of the British Psychoanalytical Society to the anti-individualistic football tactics of Alf Ramsey.

But it was professional music criticism that bore the brunt since, according to Keller, critics almost always tended to review their own incomprehension rather than the works set before them and because they were unnecessary, if not harmful, to the essential communication between composer, performer and listener. In the late 1950s, indeed, he attempted to cut out words altogether: launching a method he called 'Functional Analysis' of commenting upon masterpieces of the standard repertoire purely in music, through specially devised analytical scores. As for the BBC, if it had hoped to neutralise his gadfly attacks by employing him in 1960, it was soon to be disabused - not only by Piotr Zak, but by Keller's instigation of the internal rebellion against the notorious Broadcasting in the Seventies proposals which at one stage even seemed to threaten the continuance of the BBC Symphony Orchestra.

Such was the intensity of Keller's playful aggressiveness, so relentless at times his mode of dialectical paradox, that his lectures and articles could infuriate even as they illuminated. Those who knew him more intimately were also often struck by the extraordinary contrast between his public pugnacity and the extreme courtesy and tenderness he could extend to his private pupils or the youthful string quartets he continued to coach at the Menuhin School almost to the day of his death from motor neurone disease in 1985. Not least odd was his seemingly cavalier attitude to his own often striking original writings. Though he published a penetrating study of Stravinsky in collaboration with his artist wife, Milein Cosman, and a marvellous firework display of polemics currently available under the title Music, Closed Societes, and Football - and though his testament, The Great Haydn Quartets, was in the press when he died - his legacy included three other book-length manuscripts he had never got round to publishing and a lifetime of uncollected articles, all of them highly idiosyncratic, occasionally repetitious, but shot through with unique insights and aphorisms.

Next Thursday, Cambridge University Press is publishing a substantial anthology, edited by Christopher Wintle, of King's College, London. Since I played an early, if uncontractual, part in sorting out the material, I may perhaps be in a better position than most to appreciate the aptitude of Wintle's final choice; likewise the extent to which the editorial notes comprise a virtual guide to the rest of Keller's vast output. A collection of mordant writings on the vicissitudes of criticism opens the anthology, followed by a generous selection of articles on individual composers - not only Haydn, Beethoven, Schoenberg, Stravinsky and Britten, about whom Keller always wrote so profoundly, but some more surprising choices, such as Schumann, Glazunov, Maxwell Davies, even the composer of the 'Harry Lime Theme'. Finally Wintle has grouped a selection of more densely analytic pieces, including some of Keller's key articles on Mozart, under the heading 'Towards a Theory of Music'.

It was of the essence of that theory that Western tradition had handed down a concept and practice of music that amounted to no less than a self-justifying and dynamic medium of thought, capable of discovering and conveying truths about the human mind, body and spirit that could be conveyed in no other way. But no one was more aware than Keller of the extent to which that tradition was under attack in the 20th century, not only from critical, educational and political corners, but from mechanical reproduction, which he claimed tended to induce an 'infinite postponability of concentration' in listeners and threatened to reduce even the most sublime masterpieces to mere background music. His concomitant view that composition itself threatened to decline from an art of dialectical communication to mere hypnotics and pattern-making would seem strikingly confirmed by trends since his death. Yet the real excitement of his writing was not just to convey a lost fullness of musical communion as evidently experienced in those distant string quartet sessions of his Viennese boyhood but to suggest, through a ruthless defence of musical values and against cultural odds, how that fullness might sometimes be recaptured in the present and future.

'Hans Keller: Essays on Music', edited by Christopher Wintle, CUP, 269pp, pounds 30

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