Wearing three hats: Hans Keller and concert programmes

Some of the many programmes in the Hans Keller ARchive

Some of the many programmes in the Hans Keller Archive

As I write this time, I can compete with Mr. Keller in the hat stakes, not only wearing my Hans Keller Archivist’s deerstalker, but also the extremely fetching fascinator I don when taking care of the concert programme collections at the University Library. Impossible, of course, in a single post to even begin to do justice to the programmes in the Archive (I haven’t even found them all yet). Instead, here is a pixie-hat-sized taster of the riches it contains.

My title reflects the three-fold role Hans Keller had with concerts and their programmes: as a member of the audience, as a reviewer for the host of journals to which he contributed and as a programme note writer. Let’s take the last first – of which about 300 have so far come to light.

From the moment he joined the BBC he plunged straight into preparing programme notes for the Proms seasons, for the BBC Symphony Orchestra seasons on the South Bank and later for EBU concerts and myriad other occasions encompassing the widest possible range of works from the “standard” repertoire (whatever that is) to premières and, of course, his beloved Haydn quartets.

EBU programmes

Three of the EBU International String Quartet series programmes for which Hans Keller wrote notes

He encapsulates his attitude towards programme notes at the start of a piece on the Missa Solemnis, probably from the 1960s, (for which I have yet to find the programme concerned!) thus:

“Why not be frank? The shape and substance of every single programme note I write are determined by my long-considered conviction that programme notes in the conventional sense…are superfluous at their best and harmful at their almost inevitable worst.  Again and again, I try to write the opposite of the kind of note which leads you away from the music by professing to lead you through it stage by stage, and which assumes, in the most encouraging terms, that you are a musical idiot, incapable of sheer musical experience, an easy victim to the drug of words.”

His note, for example, on the Tchaikovsky violin concerto for the Prom of 13th August 1960 is a masterpiece of conciseness typical of him. It conveys not only the background to the work’s composition, its initial reception and its place in the repertoire today, but also, crucially, in a few short sentences, its musical essence: “…one of the tensest and tersest opening promises in all music. You hold your breath as you are asked, indeed compelled, to watch out for what is to come.” [and I bet, dear reader, you have now paused a moment, as did I, to recall that very opening in order to agree with him]. The soloist, by the way, on this occasion was the great Polish violinist Henryk Szeryng, a pupil of the equally legendary Carl Flesch.

Cover of the June 1983 series given by London Sinfonietta at the Queen Elizabeth Hall

Cover of the June 1983 series given by London Sinfonietta at the Queen Elizabeth Hall

Outside the “confines” (Hans was never confined) of the BBC, he wrote for a wide range of other ensembles and occasions: the Holland Festival, Salzburg, Aldeburgh, the Menuhin School and London Sinfonietta to name but a small handful. For the last, for example, Keller wrote not only the introductory essay for the series of concerts of Schoenberg and Roberto Gerhard in autumn 1973 but also an insightful piece for their series “Vienna: reaction and revolution”at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in June that same year. Entitled “A personal view of Vienna in the 20s and 30s”, he gives a fascinating account of Schoenberg’s Club for Private Musical Performances whose aim was to promote “better understanding of substantial modern music”. Everyone from Mahler, to Schoenberg, Webern, Pfitzner, Berg and Franz Schmidt (whom Keller believed to be the greatest chamber musician he had ever heard) had their compositions performed. “How urgently”, writes Keller, “more than half a century after the event, we would need such a club!” The second half of the essay is more personal in that Keller talks about the Saturday chamber music sessions held in the Neubaugasse where Schmidt, Oskar Adler (Keller’s teacher) and others gathered to make music. On occasion, these sessions included the young Keller as second violin. “… offhand, I can’t remember a single truly leading musician whom one did not meet at some of these Saturday afternoons…”. Astonishing.

But, I must move on! I have lost count of the number of concerts and opera performances Hans Keller reviewed. Beginning in the late 1940s with Music Survey and Music Review and working his way through what must surely be almost the entire musical press together with Listener, Spectator and many of the major daily and Sunday papers. For anyone other than Hans, this would have been a full-time occupation. Wrestling with the galley proofs of the September 1951 issue of Music Survey, which I happen to have to hand at present, Hans has offered –  in addition to an article on Britten and a book review or two – no fewer than five reviews including coverage of Aldeburgh, Glyndebourne and Covent Garden. Typically, he would scribble his thoughts all over the programme for the performance he was reviewing and compile a neat, pithy, tightly focused piece within the given word-count.

Programme for 16th January 1955. Sketches by Milein Cosman. Published with the kind permission of the Cosman Keller Art and Music Trust.

Programme for 16th January 1955. Sketches by Milein Cosman. Published with the kind permission of the Cosman Keller Art and Music Trust.

Sometimes, though, Hans was “simply” (nothing is ever simple with him though) a member of the audience as for this concert at the Festival Hall on 16th January 1955. Just look at the two pianists…how I wish I had been there! Keller’s wife, the artist Milein Cosman was, however, and has left her impression of the event with her inimitable, breathtaking ability to express all with but a few strokes of the pen. Marvellous.

I am fast approaching my own word-count here, so must reluctantly conclude, but not before I have switched hats quickly to draw your attention to the new-look Concert Programmes Project website where you can find details of the concert programmes in the Hans Keller Archive.

Finally, a fourth hat has appeared stage left! Hans Keller as the focus of attention on the programme. His Functional Analysis no. 10 of the Mozart Clarinet Quintet (K.581) was given at the Arts Council in St. James’s Square on 24th March, 1961 by Thea King and the English String Quartet. He analysed the work, he wrote the notes, he was there to answer questions. Hats off, ladies and gentlemen to a consummate multi-tasker!


FA no10

Programme for the Functional Analysis of Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet, K.581.


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