Bear with me, gentle reader – there is a connection…somewhere…
I have just spent most of a day reassembling the jigsaw of the manuscript of Hans Keller‘s book The Great Haydn Quartets [M668.c.95.53] – no easy task when one’s knowledge of the works is but the dimmest of glimmers when compared to Keller’s laser-like beam of intensity (OK, OK, I do actually know my fair share and love and admire them intensely). Gradually, rather like the opening of Op.76 no.4, the sun came out and we now have (nearly) all the pages in (nearly) the right order [pace Eric Morecambe].
But that’s not really what I wanted to write about – except to urge you to read the book: a masterpiece. The exercise set me thinking yet again about the special place these quartets had in Keller’s life. Why? Why more so than Mozart or Beethoven or Mendelssohn or Bartok or…insert great quartet composer’s name here?
Keller was weaned on the Haydn quartets, playing them regularly (both as a violinist and viola player) in chamber music sessions at his parents’ home. Thus by his early teens he knew – and admired – all of them, or rather, the 45 he deemed to be masterpieces:
“On a conservative count, he wrote 45 profound and profoundly different, absolutely flawless, consistently original master quartets, each a violent, multi-dimensional contrast to any of the others: pace the ultimate metaphysical discoveries of Beethoven’s late quartets, which great quartet composer’s output in the medium can begin to compare with Haydn’s comprehensive treatment?” (Great Haydn Quartets, p.5)
They remained absolutely central to his musical life: not only did they inform his approach to quartet coaching, but they were also the subject of several of his Functional Analyses, of many detailed and insightful reviews, programme notes, radio broadcasts and of articles for the musical press. This lifetime’s immersion’s culmination was the book – sadly not published until after his death. Delightfully, it seems that Haydn was paying attention up there in heaven as he sent his own review of the work to Musical Times – much to William Drabkin‘s puzzlement who found it, mysteriously, on his word processor one morning – see Vol. 127, No. 1726 (Nov., 1986), pp. 624-625 [subscription required].
This emphasis that any self-respecting string quartet should know the 45 great quartets formed an integral part of the European Broadcasting Union‘s String Quartet competitions in the 70s and 80s (yes, Keller was at the centre of their organisation) where each competing quartet was asked to choose an unmarked envelope containing the parts for one of them, then to go away and work on it for an hour before performing what they had done to the judging panel. In 1974, the Chilingirian Quartet (whom Keller was coaching) had entered and, to prepare them, Keller wrote an extraordinary series of letters to Levon Chilingirian. Keller sets out his stall thus; ” I decided, at 0007 precisely, to act realistically, if unconventionally: that’s what life usually is about, and art always. I shall devote about ½-hour per day (not, perhaps, every day) to one of the forty-five, sending you notes about what to avoid, and what might be overlooked on superficial acquaintance – all based on wide, specific coaching experience” (letter to Levon Chilingirian, 11 July 1974, CUL Keller Archive). He reached Op.54 before other things intervened…
We see this same emphasis reappear when, in 1982, Keller ws appointed head of chamber music at the Yehudi Menuhin School. Sharing his news in a letter of 29 March 1983 to H. C. Robbins Landon he writes: “…which means that I am in sole charge of their nine quartets – and what it means in addition I need hardly tell you: everybody must know and, of course, have played the 45 great Haydn quartets, and if he or she holds his or her instrument under his/her chin, he/she must play the three upper parts of each.” A tall order for the pupils who were only in their teens. Was this ambition achieved, one wonders?
At the time, Robbins Landon was preparing a new edition of the Quartets for Doblinger and Keller had been invited to proof read and make editorial suggestions from the point of view of the performer. How could he resist such an opportunity?
“I shall be very happy to do the job …the more so since I personally don’t know a single comparable edition which has been done with what I would consider sufficient competence. In the area of Haydn’s string quartets, in particular, two-dimensional competence is required, i.e. both a complete and exhaustive knowledge of the works and an equally exhaustive insight into their performing problems” (letter 7 July 1983 to Herbert Vogg at Doblinger. CUL Keller Archive)
Keller deployed his exhaustive knowledge and insight to exhaustive effect in an exhaustive (and probably exhausting) series of letters offering an almost bar-by-bar commentary on the shortcomings of the proofs in this respect. Sadly he died before the task could be completed.
…and this is where the connection to Marion Scott can be made – at last, do I hear you sigh? Robbins Landon was working from what he felt were the best original sources, whether manuscript or early editions, to prepare his edition for Doblinger. H’mm, I thought to myself, what do we have here in the Library in the way of early editions? As the more assiduous and attentive of our readers will remember, a while back we provided a little outline of the Marion Scott Collection which, naturally, contains almost nothing BUT Haydn. I went downstairs to look through the MRS.1 shelves: surely, I thought, a few minutes later, I have died and gone to heaven as I opened box after box of quartets published by Artaria, Pleyel, Sieber et al. A wonderful treasure trove of material, much of it published during Haydn’s lifetime. How helpful of Sieber, I thought, in their 1815 edition, to provide a thematic index as an aide memoire to those of us who know we know, say, op.33 no.1, but simply can’t bring it to mind (oh, the ageing brain).
How delightful, then, that we can provide a soup to nuts Haydn quartets experience: from raw material in our first editions, to modern performing editions (such as the excellent one by Simon Rowland-Jones for Peters, available at the Pendlebury Library) to Keller’s own insightful understanding of the works of genius and originality they are. My particular favourite? Impossible! Perhaps Op.20 no.1 with it’s deeply contemplative slow movement, or maybe op.76 no.4, the “Sunrise” – how can anyone beat that opening? Or no, wait, what about…as I said – impossible!