“At a festival you are bound to enjoy yourself”: Hans Keller at the Edinburgh Festival

A selection of programmes for the inaugural Edinburgh International Festival in the Hans Keller Archive.
© Sarah Chapman.

Founded by Rudolph Bing, Henry Harvey Wood and Sidney Newman, The Edinburgh Festival celebrates its 70th birthday this year – to which we at MusiCB3 wish many happy returns! There is an excellent account of the generation of the Festival on their website which explains: “Our founding ideal vision was never so clearly embodied than in our inaugural year, when, following Nazi persecution, the renowned conductor Bruno Walter was re-united with the Vienna Philharmonic.” Bing, a Viennese opera impresario had also supported John Christie in the establishment of Glyndebourne Opera after his move to London in 1934 and Newman was Reid Professor of Music at Edinburgh University. In the audience for those concerts was another who had survived that persecution, having escaped Vienna in December 1938 by the skin of his teeth and come to London to join his mother and sister – Hans Keller.

Keller, who was by that time, working to establish himself as a critic and writer on music, had been commissioned by the Jewish magazine New Life to review the Festival. Being Keller, he had also secured further reporting commissions from Music Parade, Tempo and Contemporary Cinema. Thus, armed with the all-important press pass he travelled north and settled in for three weeks of intensive listening. It seems he had a good time, reporting back to his friend the pianist and broadcaster Paul Hamburger in a letter of 18 September:

“I have a first-class life here; if one either has a lot of money or is a member of the press, life becomes a bed of roses – only not from Bruno Walter who doesn’t allow people into rehearsals.  (Lied von der Erde, Pears, Ferrier, Vienna Philharmonic.)  But I have telephoned Pears and he’ll fix it with Mr WalterI’m getting very chummy with members of the Vienna Philharmonic which is very interesting as long as they don’t talk about music.”

Here in the Keller archive we have a cache of his programmes from the Festival, all heavily annotated as he recorded his thoughts during the performances. They include Walter Susskind’s concert with the Scottish Orchestra and Michelangeli in the Ravel concerto, Bartered Bride overture, Dvorak’s Fourth Symphony and Britten’s Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes (“Mr Susskind has a tendency towards quick tempi. Used with discrimination, it will prove entirely beneficial” reported Keller) and a host of chamber music recitals. Sadly though, not that for the Lied von der Erde, about which he has this to say in his review for New Life in its November 1947 issue:

“…the 1947 performances seemed ‘first ones’… not only because the majority of the Edinburgh audiences had not, apparently, heard the work before, but also because Walter re-created it with the same youthful enthusiasm, if probably with a yet greater maturity of insight, than I assume him to have brought to the premiere. Assisted by Kathleen Ferrier and Peter Pears, better interpreters than whom he could not have found among contemporary singers, and by the high-spirited Vienna Philharmonic … he gave what would have been a well-nigh perfect rendering had not the celesta… been lavishly off the orchestra’s pitch…”

One of the main attractions of the Festival were performances by Glyndebourne Festival Opera of Verdi’s Macbeth and Mozart’s Figaro. For Music Parade, Keller compared  Glyndebourne’s Edinburgh performances with those given that same year at Sadlers Wells and the Vienna State Opera on its visit to Britain. Top marks go to Vienna (perhaps an unconscious bias here?) and of the Edinburgh performance he writes:

“Edinburgh’s Figaro, Italo Tajo, a great singer and actor, won’t be a great Figaro as long as he makes a clown of the figure. There were two superb Bartolos, Owen Brannigan (Edinburgh) and Howell Glynne (Wells). If John Brownlee’s Count Almaviva (Edinburgh) lacked personality, that is just what a good Almaviva ought to do. The clarity of his ensemble work, in the sextet and elsewhere, was exceptional…as for Giulietta Simionato (Edinburgh), her enthralling Cherubino exaggerated the lighter side of the role at the expense of its underlying substance.” [Music Parade, Vol.1 no.6, p.19-21]

Much more informally he reported to Paul Hamburger in his 18 September letter: “The Figaro here is not bad (apart from a few lapses of taste in the accompaniments to recitatives for which Süsskind is apparently responsible). We have a Count here who is idiotically underrated: whatever his failings, he sings in the ensembles not only with deadly accurate and suggestive intonation, but also with a phrasing that flashes from here to Glasgow…”

Keller’s notes for his report on the Festival for New Life.
© Sarah Chapman.

Not content with his role reporting on the music, Keller also reported on the music to be heard in the first International Festival of Documentary Films held as part of the overall Festival. It was clearly a curate’s egg experience, reflected in his report for the November 1947 issue of Contemporary Cinema:

“It was sad, for instance, to hear what would have been an outstanding British contribution, ‘Antarctic Whale Hunt’ (This Modern Age No. 12 music anonymous), being spoilt by 19 minutes of incessant euphony. Why? Is there a single person among the millions of film-goers who would protest if background music were introduced more sparingly?” [Oh dear. There is more:] “Towards the end of the showing of ‘Your Freedom is at Stake’ (Denmark; music by Kai Rosenberg) a respected colleague left the cinema, and soon afterwards your critic followed suit. The latter’s immediate reason was that he had to change for the evening’s concert performance (from a film music critic to a mere music critic). But he would in any case have followed his distinguished colleague’s laudable example. For the musical part of this splendid film (shot during the occupation) was, frankly, an intolerable bore.” [Thankfully things improved later in the week:] “Last and best: ‘Rhythm of a City‘ (Sweden; music anoymous), an entirely wordless film. From the majestic title music in triple time to the fitting D major end, everything was tasteful; in fact the integration of picture and sound was exceptionally sensitive. It was during this film that one dreamt; perhaps, one day, there may be another ‘Night Mail’.”

There is the happiest of endings to this musical idyll in that it was at the Festival that Keller fell in love with the woman who was to become his wife – artist Milein Cosman who had also been commissioned by New Life to provide illustrations for Keller’s article. But that’s another story…


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