The Twilight of Twaddle: Hans Keller’s Wordless Functional Analysis

September 7th 1957 was to prove a watershed for music analysis. Onto the innocent listeners’ ears that evening courtesy of the BBC Third Programme, burst an entirely new concept: a way to make plain the unity lying behind the diversity of a composition without the need for words of explanation. Its developer, Hans Keller, called it Wordless Functional Analysis, or FA for short (a neat parallel here with his other passion – football – but in no way connected of course – although perhaps you, dear reader, know better…). This broadcast, its first demonstration, took Mozart’s String Quartet in D minor K.421 as its subject.

Final section of Keller's FA No.1, Mozart's String Quartet in D minor, K.421. [Add. MS 9371/12] © Cambridge University Library. Published with the kind permission of the Cosman Keller Art and Music Trust.

The opening of Keller’s FA No.1, Mozart’s String Quartet in D minor, K.421. [Add. MS 9371/12] © Cambridge University Library. Published with the kind permission of the Cosman Keller Art and Music Trust.

Rather than waste words explaining how the broadcast came about myself, here’s Keller setting out his thinking in his own words in a letter of 28th April 1956 to Roger Fiske, Producer of Music Talks at the BBC (whose post he would inherit in 1959):

“… I propose an hour’s broadcast, wordless throughout, which would attempt to analyse a work or movement of your own choice according to my method of analysis as demonstrated in the recent Mozart Companion and in The Music Review of February and May (K.503: The Unity of Contrasting Themes and Movements). With a ten minutes’ interval in the middle, this experiment would not, I think, prove too exhausting for Third Programme listeners….the ultimate aim of the present method of analysis is to get at the heart of the music by dispensing with verbal accounts altogether. I think I have … arrived at a stage where such a demonstration could easily be possible…. Like music itself, my method is more easily “played” than described.”

It would take another 18 months, and considerable correspondence, before Keller’s concept was finally broadcast. A month after the programme he writes to Geoffrey Sharp, Editor of Music Review that: “Wordless FA has proved a very considerable success. It’s being repeated on the Third; I’ve been commissioned to write a new analytic score; and the BBC is talking of future ones too – as if it had become a permanent institution.” By March 1960, the BBC had broadcast four of Keller’s FAs, and NDR in Hamburg had commissioned three (all Haydn quartets) but, despite a promise from the Corporation to give him two FA broadcasts a year, once he joined the BBC and pressure of work took over, he was not to write another such analysis for 15 years.

Opening pages analyses I and II of Keller's FA no.8, Beethoven's Piano Concerto no. 4 in G major, op. 58 [Add. MS 9371/19].

Opening pages of Analyses I and II of Keller’s FA no.8, Beethoven’s Piano Concerto no. 4 in G major, op. 58 [Add. MS 9371/19]. © Cambridge University Library. Published with the kind permission of the Cosman Keller Art and Music Trust.

Should you wish to read a little more about the story of FA, then may I recommend Chapter 2 of “Hans Keller and the BBC : the musical conscience of British broadcasting, 1959-79″ by A.M. Garnham. Ashgate, 2003 [M501.c.200.32] and, of course, articles by Keller himself such as: “K.503: The Unity of Contrasting Themes and Movements”, Music Review 17/1, Feb 1956, pp. 48 – 58 and 17/2, May 1956, pp.120-9; “The Home-Coming of Musical Analysis”, Musical Times, No.99/1510, Dec 1958, pp.657-8; and “The Musical analysis of Music”, The ListenerNo. 58/1497, 5 Dec 1957, pp. 202-6, published to introduce that first FA broadcast which closes:

“Where the pure, musical application of functional analysis does not explain itself, it fails. Its success, on the other hand, may eventually mean the twilight of twaddle.”

Reaction in the professional press, however, was mixed: from a generally supportive review by Colin Mason in The Guardian on 9th September 1957 “As a method of musical analysis it is undoubtedly a success…”; an extended piece by Philip Barford in the Monthly Musical Record for March-April 1958 “As a system of analysis, FA seems admirable…because it begins right away with experience…”; to outright opposition such as this broadside from Eric Blom in The Observer for 8 April 1956: “If anybody ever succeeds in making me hate Mozart’s music, it will be Hans Keller’s boast to have done so,” and from Geoffrey Wilde in The Listener for 26 September 1957: “I very much fear that lurking round the corner is another triumphant indication that progress has been working inevitably towards the twelve-note system. And that alas, so far from the twilight of twaddle, means the dawning of drivel”. All objections were, of course, defended robustly and at length (no doubt to the despair of editors) by Keller.

The opening of Keller's FA no.14, Mozart's String Quintet in G minor, K.516. [Add. MS 9371/23] © Cambridge University Library. Published with the kind permission of the Cosman Keller Art and Music Trust.

The analytic epilogue of Keller’s FA no.14, Mozart’s String Quintet in G minor, K.516. [Add. MS 9371/23] © Cambridge University Library. Published with the kind permission of the Cosman Keller Art and Music Trust.

But all this is merely an excuse to draw your attention to the fact that  here at the University Library, as the centrepiece of the Hans Keller Archive, we have almost all the manuscripts of his functional analyses, details of which can be found on the JANUS archive catalogue.  Why the centrepiece? Because, despite the thousand-plus published articles, the many thousands of letters, the programme notes and so on, they encapsulate the essence of the way Keller’s mind worked: demonstrating his  ability to get behind the notes to the very heart of a piece of music, to understand the basis from which it is driven and not to have to use another medium (words) to express himself. Indeed, in a letter to Ian MacIntyre of November 18 1980, he described FA as being “right at the centre of my life’s work”

SW

 

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One Response to The Twilight of Twaddle: Hans Keller’s Wordless Functional Analysis

  1. Pingback: At the event: Haydn Op.20 no.1 Functional Analysis at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama | MusiCB3 Blog

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