By the time of his retirement in March 1979, Hans Keller had become one of the most experienced radio broadcasters and talks producers of his generation. Not only had he delivered a prodigious number of talks for the BBC, but his services had also been engaged in Canada, Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Israel…the list goes on.
Keller’s BBC career began with his appointment by the then Controller, Third Programme, William Glock as Head of Music Talks, and although he spent only a few months in the post, he never really fully stepped out of the role. One of his many inspired innovations as Music Talks Producer was the long-running series “In Short”. Here, a well-known figure in the music world would be invited to come into the studio and record a ten-minute talk on a topic of particular interest to them. Over time, the phrase “In short” became something of an in-house byword used by Keller and his colleagues in letters and memos when summing up a suggestion or matter for discussion.
More often than not, Keller would speak ‘on the hoof’, with no written script. Nonetheless, he had prepared meticulously beforehand mentally and knew exactly what points he would cover and – to the second – how long it would take. (When he did write a script in advance, exact timings are marked at key points in the piece). Such “extempore” talks were often given as lectures at festivals such as Aldeburgh or Cheltenham where they might form a pre-concert event recorded by the BBC for transmission as an interval talk and subsequently transcribed by the Telediphone Department.
A small, but significant number of transcriptions of Keller’s radio broadcasts (both in German and English) are held here in his archive at the University Library, records for which have just been created as part of the ongoing cataloguing project. They range from short, incisive continuity announcements to reviews of recent recordings, to deeply insightful and considered expositions on a range of subjects from his beloved Haydn Quartets to Schoenberg. Examples to whet your appetite include his 4 October 1971 interval talk on the first four notes of Haydn’s String Quartet op.76 no.2 [M320.d.95.144], nicknamed the “fifths” because the opening four notes are a sequence of two falling intervals of a fifth. Or what about his delightful little trailer for a performance of Berg’s Lulu [M260.c.95.37-] broadcast on 21 May 1975 – it begins “I want to make 3 points about Lulu, one highbrow, one middle-brow, one low-brow…”.
Typically, he would begin with a sweeping, challenging or off-beat statement which he would then develop, warming to his theme: “Our age has produced the notion of the neurotic artist…” (on Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony), : “Of Mozart’s string quintets, the ones in D major, G minor and C major are the greatest string quintets in existence…” (on the Mozart String Quintets), : “There is a definable sense in which Haydn can be described as the first and the last comprehensive master of the string quartet.” (on Haydn Quartets), : “The borderline between re-creation and creation isn’t always easy to find…” (on the violinist Bronislaw Huberman, whom Keller revered),: “The only music that exists for you is music you have experienced.” (On Britten’s String Quartets) : “…it is true to say about Beethoven that all he did was new, except that Haydn had done it before…” (From a series of four masterly talks given at Leeds University in 1973 on Beethoven’s String Quartet in B Flat, op.130). And so on….
He also recorded and broadcast discussions with major musical figures of the time such as that with William Walton on contemporary music broadcast on 19 Sep 1965 and with Max Rostal on the role of the virtuoso as a teacher broadcast on 22 June 1966. Perhaps the most extensive of these was “Portrait of Schoenberg”. Broadcast on 6 November 1965, the programme explored the life and works of the composer through interviews Keller recorded with a range of musicians and others who had known him such as Oskar Kokoschka, Karl Rankl, Sir Arthur Bliss, Erwin Stein and Dika Newlin. The programme was produced by Christopher Nupen and repeated on 1 December the same year. The interviews were recorded over the course of the preceding two years and drawn from for the programme itself.
From a purely personal point of view, Keller’s most significant radio talk was surely his contribution to the long-running series “Time of my life”, in which a well-known figure would discuss an aspect of their life which was important to them, or had been a turning point. Keller, on 3 February 1974, with immense courage, decided to talk about his experiences in Vienna in 1938 when captured, held prisoner and tortured by the Nazis and of his subsequent escape to England with the help of his brother-in-law Roy Franey. The text of the talk was published in The Listener on 28 Mar 1974.
But let me finish with a favourite unearthed during the cataloguing process: a 15-minute interval talk for the Mid-day Prom broadcast on Friday 9 April 1971 at 13:05 entitled “Music, metaphysics and religion”. ‘Crumbs’, I thought to myself, ‘in 15 minutes??’. Shelves of learned tomes have been surely written on such subjects. But, the ears perk up at his opening sentence and are subsequently beguiled by Keller at his most quizzical:
“Ours is a secular age: God has moved into opposition, availing himself of all the advantages and disadvantages which the opposition leader’s post inevitably entails….” He continues: “God was sitting alone – except, that is to say, for the sound of the music of the spheres…Consider these facts, he said to himself, having nobody else to talk to on his level of responsibility since the birth of monotheism, Schoenberg and Stravinsky are the giants, the revolutionary leaders of the music of the twentieth century…The more radical they became, the more conscious did they become of their metaphysical mission, of the metaphysical essence of all great music. Moreover, they were hardly on speaking terms down there, but up here their polarity has resolved into meaningful counterpoint…At this point, contrary to professional etiquette, God got quite excited. Why, music down the ages hadn’t shown any fluctuations at all; the difference between sacred and secular music was simply that between the religious and the metaphysical spirit…And here God interrupted himself, for the music of the spheres had just started playing Shostakovich’s Tenth Symphony – together with, of all things, the St. Matthew Passion, Mahler’s Eighth Symphony and Bruckner’s Ninth – in quadruple counterpoint….God closed his eyes as he listened to the final cadence of the Shostabrumabach. He’d had, after all, a good day – it was Good Friday, in fact, one of the best Friday’s he’d had in ages.”