Hans Keller and the anti-programme note programme note: a tale in 1231 words

Programmes from the Hans Keller archive

For this post, I am calling in the specialist and allowing him the floor to make his case. Dear reader, I leave you in the capable hands of Hans Keller for the next 1,184 words [with the occasional editorial interjection to ensure your attention has not wandered].

The following is an extract from an unfinished programme note. Undated, but probably the 1950s. [Keller Archive Box F1] Before Keller talks about the work in question, he takes time to air his views about the purpose and function of the programme note:

Mass in D (Missa Solemnis), Beethoven (1770 – 1827)

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 (if not indeed programme notes altogether) are superfluous at their best and harmful at their almost invariable 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.

I have watched people. Musical people they call themselves, who are no longer able to listen to a single work without, at the same time, studying the programme note; in fact, one can almost hear them shout: ‘stop playing, I can’t concentrate!’ Then there is the more sophisticated type, the kind of person who reads the note on the second work in the programme while the first is played, and proceeds with this until, in the last work, he finds himself at an utter loss – a pure symbol of the cultural neurosis of our time, which escapes from the present, not into the past, but into the future.

By now, the reader will have realized that any reading of this present note during the performance of the Missa Solemnis must prove distinctly uncomfortable; and whether he decides to read it before or after the concert or not at all, my aim – not to deflect the attention from one of the greatest spiritual achievements of all time – has been achieved even before I have finished my introduction.

To emphasise his point,  in his note for the first performance of Alwyn’s Third Symphony, given by the BBC SO at the RFH on 10th October 1956 [Keller Archive Box BBC/F2], he is in similar anti-note mood, admonishing his audience thus at the beginning of the note in full capital-letters-looking-over-the-top-of-the-glasses manner (although, significantly, this does not appear in the printed programme):

BBCSO programme for 10 October 1956 which included the first performance of Alwyn’s Third Symphony.


Gustav Mahler, one gathers, was highly suspicious of the value of programme notes, and whoever has watched the conscientious type of listener during the performance of a novelty, his finger glued to a certain passage or music example in the programme and his eyes fixed upon the inactive instrument from which ‘the overwhelming theme of the middle section of the middle section’ ought to have issued forth quite some time ago, may well think that the crisis of contemporary music is due to the fact that even the best new work has little chance of surviving the effect of its programme note. The present introduction to Alwyn’s Third Symphony is so designed that the music cannot be ‘followed’ in it.

He then goes on, in his usual masterly way, to express the essence of the work and how Alwyn achieves its underlying unity in just two pithy, insightful, sentences, in advance of his programme note proper:

Of Alwyn’s three romantic symphonies, completed in 1949, 1953 and May 1956 respectively, the latest (commissioned by the BBC and dedicated to Richard Howgill) is doubtless the most concentrated in thematic and eminently rhythmic development. At the root of its close integration lies an individual solution of the central problem of our age’s music – the problem of a systematic regeneration of harmony. The Schoenbergian solution – via an atonal renewal of melody – would not as such have done for Alwyn, for one thing because he is not fundamentally a contrapuntist, and for another because his creative mind needs the tonal contrasts of discord and resolving concord.

This is Keller in his element: able to express the essence of a work, to home in on the key to a composer’s creative character and explain how it manifests itself in the work under discussion. It must, surely, have been what made him so valued as a coach not only of performers, but of composers. We expect from him the deepest understanding of Haydn, Mozart and (especially) Beethoven and in our own times (ha! I nearly wrote century…) of Britten and Schoenberg, but we see the same insight here with Alwyn deployed for our benefit. So yes, take his admonition not to read notes seriously, but for heaven’s sake read his notes with the greatest attention after the event – you will not be disappointed.

As a coda, I cannot resist this little masterpiece:

Brahms Violin Concerto for RFH BBCSO 20 March 1963. Zvi Zeitlin soloist. [Keller Archive Box BBC/F2]

Violinist and pedagogue Zvi Zeitlin in the 1950s

After the classical era, the general practitioner had had his day so far as the treatment of the violin was concerned, and the Harley Street specialist was called in. Even Mendelssohn, who played the violin himself, called upon the services of a violinist consultant (Ferdinand David), and many other virtuosos wrote their own concertos. While the snob value of these works is, at the moment, low, some of them are well worth reviving on purely musical grounds; Joseph Joachim’s ‘Concerto in the Hungarian Style’, for instance, should be returned to the repertoire.

The nearest Brahms himself ever got to the fiddle in his formative years was to hear his father play it, and if he had not befriended Joseph Joachim he would probably have been amongst the few great composers who did not contribute substantially to the literature of the instrument. As it was, Joachim’s consultantship proved one of the most fortunate events in musical history, whether Brahms accepted or (more often) rejected a particular piece of advice: the stimulation, not to speak of the cadenza, which Joachim provided cannot be over-estimated.

Nevertheless, this towering concerto is palpably not a violinist’s. Beethoven (although he was one) had set the scene for the un- or supra-violinistic concerto, and Brahms was not the one to disappoint him. By the time he had finished with the solo part, not much was left to satisfy the instrument’s traditional propensities apart from the key – or so it seemed. The great violinist Wieniawski himself described it as unplayable, while Bülow contented himself with the observation that is was ‘a concerto against the violin’.

It isn’t. Today, when virtuosos are happy to cope with its difficulties, awkward tenths and all, we know that the work was written for the instrument’s future which it so helped to create and the last movement, a gipsy rondo composed, no doubt, with Joachim very much in mind, strikes us by now as eminently violinistic. So, once again, a great concerto, at first badly received by the public, the critics, and even the musicians, has helped to enrich the character of an instrument ‘against’ which it seemed to have been written.


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2 Responses to Hans Keller and the anti-programme note programme note: a tale in 1231 words

  1. christopher wintle says:

    An excellent find: all new to me, and a good way to start the day. I’m not entirely with HK. ‘Nothing comes from nowhere’, and when we listen to most pieces of music (except ones that are bespoke for an occasion) we need to know about the time place and circumstance of its origin, and, for me at least, how long it is, in how many movements and so forth. There is a tension between a work’s past and our present. HK’s comments on Brahms and Joachim support my point …


  2. David Wilde says:

    Together with Reizenstein, Curzon, and Boulanger, Hans Keller was one of my mentors in my early career, and I have the happiest memories of him. For quite a long time we had regular weekly lunch dates at the BBC’s restaurant in Great Portland St. Whenever I arrived, Hans would be there before me, having already grabbed a table for us, and would watch for me and call me to it. The conversations that followed were some of the most stimulating of my life, and easily gave me enough food for thought for the next week, leading to our next meeting. Typically, though a refugee from Hitler’s Germany who had spent two days in the hands of the Gestapo [how he escaped with his life is not clear], Hans was a great defender of the much-maligned Wilhelm Furtwaengler. He also engaged me to give two talks in his broadcast series, the first of which, ‘The Artist in Society’, he approved of, but the second of which, on Jung and music, he agreed to include, although he deeply disagreed with the content.
    Hans was a great, brilliant, and good man whom I feel privileged to have known so well.

    Liked by 1 person

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