“To write as best we can”: Hans Keller’s journal articles

Some of the many journals to which Hans Keller contributed.

Some of the many journals to which Hans Keller contributed.  © CUL 2015

Hans Keller’s written output was prodigious: over the course of some forty years it encompassed several books, translations, libretti, lectures and conference papers and well over 1,000 published articles.  These last comprised hundreds of reviews of concerts, festivals, operas, film music, recordings, newly-published music and first performances; book reviews covering not only music but also psychology, sport, literature and politics; regular columns for journals such as The Listener, Spectator, Music and Musicians and New Statesman which included elegant short pieces on football, on individual composers from Britten to Wagner via Skalkottas, Schoenberg, Mozart and his beloved Haydn, criticism and analysis (including his own Functional Analysis) and on political issues such as the future of the BBC. In these columns and other articles, he also explored with élan themes close to his heart –  teaching, competitions and the concept of professionalism – and crafted many profoundly illuminating discussions of individual compositions from Peter Grimes to Haydn’s String Quartets. He wrote, always, with deep conviction, believing that at all costs, it was important to present the truth (as he saw it), however inconvenient.

It was in the years immediately after WWII that Keller established himself as one of the leading figures in British musical life and built his reputation as a writer and critic.  It seems he never stopped writing: even on holiday with his wife, the artist Milein Cosman, he would sit on the beach and expect to write at least 3,000 words a day (indeed, his book Criticism (pub. posth. 1987) was the product of a holiday in November 1976). His range of interests, as we have seen, was broad and, as he set out to make himself known, he penned many speculative letters offering articles to journals as diverse as The Lantern, Monthly Musical Record, The Psychologist, Music Review and The Listener: even Vogue and Junior Bazaar (the college girl’s version of Harper’s Bazaar) didn’t escape his blandishments!

Chart showing the spread of articles across journals

Chart showing the spread of articles across journals

His earliest articles were concerned, not with music, but with psychology, and include several delightful sets of aphorisms (a genre with which he was to become particularly associated) “On Maturity” published in The Psychologist between 1945 and 1947.

“Maturity in resignation is reached when instead of retreating when it is too late, and instead of giving up too early, one stops when one has to stop, and smiles when one realises one has to.”
(The Psychologist, August 1947, p.17)

At the same time he was developing an intense interest in film music which found outlets in his many reviews for the British Film Insitute’s Monthly Film BulletinMusic Review and Music Survey, the journal he and Donald Mitchell co-edited from 1949 – 1952. His deepening admiration for the work of Benjamin Britten also led to deeply insightful articles on the composer, his music and its reception such as ‘Resistances to Britten’s Music: Their Psychology’, in Music Survey 2/4 (Spring 1950), pp. 227-36.

Fast-forward 20 years and we find in the archive a list he and his then secretary at the BBC Pauline Beesley drew up in about 1974 of his output in preparation for a volume of selected essays (which was never published). It provides a marvellous summary which our “tag cloud” below (which covers all his articles) illustrates. It is interesting to see in this list how Keller himself divides his output into film music, criticism, contemporary music, chamber music, communication and revelation, theory, together with articles on specific composers such as Britten, Stravinsky and his beloved Haydn, and finally a separate list devoted to Schoenberg (which had reached well over 50 by then).

Kdeller tag cloud top 75Impossible to begin to pick out a few favourites, let alone one, from those articles I have read (and, no, I’ve not read them all…). But since you ask, may I recommend the columns for Music and Musicians which cover topics about which he felt strongly such as competitions, the nature of genius and so on, and upon which he wrote with eloquence, conviction, passion and persuasion. Many are published in The Keller column : essays by Hans Keller from ‘Music & musicians’ magazine, 1984-5 edited by Robert Matthew-Walker (1990). May I also urge you to read the excellent selection Essays on music (1994) edited by Christopher Wintle, Bayan Northcott and Irene Samuel. When you have done that proceed subito presto to Music and psychology : from Vienna to London, 1939-52 (2003) a further selection edited by Wintle and A. M. Garnham,  and thence allegro vivace to Film music & beyond : writing on music and the screen, (2006) also edited by Wintle. An interim handlist of the published articles in the Hans Keller Archive at Cambridge University Library has also been compiled.

Some of the 1,000 plus type and manuscript articles from Hans Keller's archive.

Some of the 1,000 plus typescript and manuscript articles from Hans Keller’s archive.
© CUL 2015

Finally, may I leave you with this delightful little piece from my “probably unpublished, date uncertain” file (although, I think it dates from around the spring of 1947)? It’s not music, football or psychology and there isn’t an aphorism in sight. But it is 280 words of quintessential Hans Keller:

Rewriting and Rethinking*.

Hans Keller

It sometimes happens that the idea behind a discarded, often rejected, or unfinished MS lingers on in our minds, persistently refusing to be dismissed. After weeks or even months we finally decide to rewrite the thing, damn it.

But perhaps we wouldn’t damn the job, were it not for the fact that we have to take up that old MS again, and that we have to go, with due disgust, through its pages in order conscientiously to select what might be of use for our to-be effort. Perhaps we should thoroughly enjoy doing the new version if we could only do it really anew, without first of all having to study old rubbish.

Well, why shouldn’t we do so? Really anew? It is not merely a question of doing the thing with greater pleasure, and therefore probably with greater success. It may also be that without the limits imposed by the “useful” bits from the discarded MS (at their worst clever-clever phrases with which we have fallen in self-love) we shall be able to develop a saleable conception of what we want to write about. In a word, we needn’t always be good boys and make use of the self-created material at hand, for meanwhile better material may have assembled in our head.

And we don’t risk anything, for when the new version is finished we may still go through the old one and see whether we have forgotten anything important. It will then often appear that, fortunately, we have forgotten a great deal that is only now realized to be utterly unimportant. So let’s be naughty if we thereby serve our supreme duty: to write as best we can.


*‘Rewriting and re-thinking’, TS, 2pp. [n.d.] With comp slip [undated] from Matson’s Publications : “Sorry, did not find this quite meaty enough for the F.L.W.P.” [Free-lance Writer and Photographer]


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