‘An experienced traitor’: Hans Keller and the English language

Hans Keller in the 1950s. Milein Cosman. Published with the kind permission of the Cosman Keller Art and Music Trust.

Nothing to do with music for once, this week – or not directly anyway (or is it?). No-one who reads anything written by Hans Keller – whether it be a concert review for Music Review, a piece for the Listener, an in-depth article for one of the many other journals to which he contributed, the script of a talk (although he generally spoke extempore), or indeed one of the many thousands of letters he wrote during his lifetime – can fail to be impressed, intrigued and delighted by his obvious enjoyment of his ‘second’ language and his keen interest in its correct usage. Fowler [C201.d.8912] and the OED can never have been far from his side. In fact, I’m already feeling his sharp intake of breath as his spirit leans over my keyboard as I type, watching the hopeless spray of clauses and sub-clauses and the liberal over-use of commas…

His style is immediately recognisable: by turns loquacious and direct, detailed, always challenging the reader to think for himself yet confident in its presentation of arguments to support facts (or perhaps that should be its presentation of facts to both support and destroy others’ arguments). There is also often a mischievous pleasure taken, frankly, in showing off his virtuoso command of what became his native language only in adulthood. Underlying everything he writes and the way in which he writes and for whom he writes on any given occasion is his deep wish to ensure that he communicates clearly, unambiguously and engagingly with his audience, irrespective of the topic. His aphorisms, as we have seen, are splendid examples.

A typical Keller aphorism on a most unusual piece of writing material. © Cambridge University Library

He considers his approach to writing in the introduction to his 1974 essay ‘Schoenberg: the Future of Symphonic Thought’ – the focus of which is actually a masterly analysis of the four Schoenberg String Quartets, which I can heartily recommend:

Readers who have the mixed pleasure of being familiar with different types of my writings – ‘musicological’ (if I may use the phoney term for the sake of brief characterisation), analytical and popular – may have asked themselves at some stage of temporary frustration why indeed the pleasure is mixed. The answer is jolly near to seek. Throughout my writing years, I have fought two opposite misuses of language, to wit, verbal complication and verbal simplification. Nothing that is, is either simple or complex. It is, and its simplicity or complexity depends on two variables, the standpoint whence we view it, and our own make-up and education.

People and editors and publishers who wanted the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, have always been in an infinitesimal minority. The popular world wants less than the whole, the expert more.

… when I wrote or spoke in a popular context, I adhered to an uncompromising use of technical terms whenever they were required…

Conversely, in learned journals, I have adopted a stressedly anti-technical style – retaining, to be sure, all termini technici that were absolutely necessary, i.e. stringently realistic, but rejecting both the scholarly manner with its magic evocation of objectivity and the use of useless technical terms.

… I am an experienced traitor: as an anti-critic critic, anti-word writer on music, anti-teacher teacher, and perhaps even anti-radio radio man, I have learnt to help many a struggle by fighting it. [Perspectives of New Music. 13/1, Fall/Winter 1974, pp.3 – 20.]

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

It wasn’t simply the overall approach to which Keller paid particular attention – the detail received as much care. When, precisely, to use a semicolon, for example. Here he is, writing to Peter Norris, Head of Music at the Menuhin School where Keller coached quartets from 1981 (note, especially, the final sentence):

21 Feb 1982

P.S. Over the telephone, you once asked me ab’t the precise function of the colon: & I’ve been feeling guilty ever since about the brevity of my reply, so here goes:-

Fowler once very aptly said (I’m quoting from memory) that what succeeded the colon ‘delivered the goods that had been invoiced in the preceding words.’ More precisely & concisely, the colon is, in effect, a substitute for such verbal warnings as ‘viz.’, ‘i.e.’, ‘that is to say,’ and – most important as an expression of a logical, causal connection, a logical invoice – ‘hence’. It follows that where the main clause succeeding the punctuation in question starts with some such word as ‘hence’ or ‘therefore’, the punctuation itself will be, not a colon, but a semicolon (or, of course, a full stop). This basic differentiation between colon & semicolon is ignored by many of our current journalistic illiterates (editors included); quite generally, even writers whose grammar & orthography are beyond reproach often evince ignorance of the exact grammatical function of punctuation (or its absence!). For us musicians, precise articulation is, of course, of the utmost importance.

And here he is again, later that same year:

1 Oct 1982

Dear Peter and Margaret,

Speaking of words, I was fascinated to be shown by Peter that I’d never thought about where ‘e.g.’ came from: most unlike me (as Peter rightly anticipated). There must, of course, be a motive for this repression; it is, in fact, my hostility t’wds this & many comparable abbreviations: it must be decades since I used my last ‘e.g.’ I always try to re-vitalize the phrase in questions – not only by way of, at least, a straightforward ‘for example’ or ‘for instance’, but also, where a marginally different meaning is involved & sh’d by[sic] [be] articulated, by less authentic means, such as ‘such as’!

These are merely a few examples, offering but a flavour of the whole. Nonetheless, they demonstrate Keller’s understanding of the transformative effect which careful thought and attention to detail in the use of language can have in communicating ideas clearly and engagingly.


All of us here at MusiCB3 would like to extend our sympathies to the family, friends and colleagues of Milein Cosman, Hans Keller’s widow who sadly passed away, peacefully at home, on 21 November. She and her wonderfully perceptive artist’s eye will be much missed. The portrait of Keller at the top of this post came to light in one of his notebooks from the 1950s. We treasure it.



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