Hans Keller as composition coach: Elisabetta Brusa reflects

Hans Keller

Coaching and mentoring, whether it was string quartets, individual instrumentalists, analysis students or young composers, was central to Hans Keller’s life. His over-riding aim always was to make himself redundant by helping his students to find and trust their own judgement, their own instinctive musicality – always to ‘think music’ and never, ever, to ‘think about music’. The archive is overflowing with letters to his pupils of whom the Chilingirian Quartet, Alexander Goehr, Hugh WoodJonathan Harvey and Alan Walker are but a few. However, this post accompanies our current Music Department exhibition on women composers and in the archive there is also a substantial file of correspondence between the composer Elisabetta Brusa and Keller.

The development of a clear-eared, independent conscience is just as important as the development of one’s sheer creativity, and everything I have told you has been said with a view to developing your musical conscience and make you independent, contemptuous even, of other people’s views.  True composition is not an experiment one tries on other people, but a communication addressed to them in the clearest possible manner. Hans Keller, letter to Elisabetta Brusa 6 April 1982.

Following a recent exchange of emails with Elisabetta Brusa herself, I am delighted to set aside my pen and instead present her own memories of the time she spent with Hans Keller:

My Hans Keller Years 1978-1985

Without Hans Keller’s spiritual and musical help I would never have written any music after my juvenile works. I met Hans Keller at the Dartington Hall Summer Music Courses in 1978. I wrote what I considered My Opus 1, the “Belsize String Quartet” in 1981-82 and dedicated it to him with all my gratitude. I also dedicated to him my 1st Symphony for large orchestra in 1990, but he never got to know it.

Elisabetta Brusa

I took private lessons with him from 1978 to 1985 and we corresponded quite a lot when I would go back to Milan. I would see him for two or three lessons every Xmas, Easter and summer for 7 years. They were very difficult times for me. I seemed to be living like a fish out of water. I just felt I could not compose in an “Avant-garde” way and was very worried about it. I tried to become ”more modern” and I was just uselessly complicating my harmonies, though this was helpful to mature. Hans understood this till one day he said ”it’s no use you thinking about writing like these other composers because you would never be as good at it as they are. You are inclined in a different way and have to go on developing in your direction. Your Harmony will become clearer”. “What!”, I thought, “oh, dear how can I make my harmony clearer?” In fact, I did it later without thinking. For some people my harmony may still seem a bit complex, but I think that as time goes by this will lessen as they listen to my works as emotional surges.

The first private lesson I did with him lasted 4 hours, the successive ones 2+ hours each. We would sit in front of each other and in front of the window next to the piano. I sat in an armchair which had a cover and every time I used to feel for the hole on the inside of the left arm-rest. He had burnt it with his pipe after having fallen asleep once. It was a special hole for me. And it was a special position because the sun shone in my face for every single lesson except once. 21 times approximately for 2 or 3 times each period. Approximately 60 lessons? 60 talks. 60 thinking times. 60 moments of pure joy. 60 moments of awe.

In 1978 when my grandparents had died and left a small inheritance to my mother she had bought a two-bedroom flat in the Belsize Park area which happened to be just below Hampstead and 15 minutes’ walk uphill to Hans’s house. For 7 years it seemed to me that Destiny had decided this meeting and our lessons. I have always been a slow composer and a lazy one too and I would bring him a part of a work. I felt that I had to continue composing just for the sake of having a lesson with him.

“Firelights” for large orchestra by Elisabetta Brusa. [MRS.310.95.175]

The first time I took him the 1st movement of my string quartet (which was actually the last movement I wrote) he saw that I was very uncertain about the result and he told me to start it all over again!! I came back home very, very demoralised and I thought “I’ll never be able to do something that satisfies him!” Yes, he was right because it turned out to be better. The quartet won the 1st prize of the 1982 Washington String Quartet Composition Competition because they didn’t just read the work but actually performed all the works to judge them.

Hans had a capacity of understanding the thoughts behind a musical work even if he had never seen it before. I always found it awesome and yet illuminating. He once told me “You know everything already. I am only here to clear up your ideas and guide you.” He taught me musical and personal free-thinking (though my father had taught me the latter too) and yet one day he told me that my “Fables” for orchestra wouldn’t have had a musical meaning to exist unless there had been the text to it. I was terribly shocked because I thought I had written some pretty pieces, but then I saw the truth of musical context, of musical meaning, of course not of the “foreground” but of the “background” as he had taught me.

He talked of his ideas, his theories, his anecdotes and his Functional Analysis which couldn’t have suited me better. In the compositional world those days, and still in the academical world nowadays, one would have to explain in fanatical detail how one had composed a work. He would comment on the composers of the past and the present times. He was always reactive and peremptory with an immediate answer. He would even say, “I have 5, 6, 7 answers to your question,” with his typical Austrian accent which was overwhelming for my poor slow brain. There was never a moment when he wouldn’t tell me something new and exciting which I would think over and over again with great joy as I walked down-hill towards my home.

He had so much knowledge, so much memory and his brain was so organised and so quick that I was always inspired by his lessons. I always had to be careful with my facial expressions because he could see right through me. I also learnt how to listen and to understand through people as well as music. He was my mentor. It took me a very long time after his death when speaking with Milein Cosman his wife to call him by his first name, so much was my respect and admiration for him. Nobody else, except my husband, has had such a musical role in my life.

Elisabetta Brusa, June 2018

SW footnote: the International Alliance for Women in Music published a fascinating interview by Ronald Horner with Brusa in the IAWM Journal, vol.25 no.1, in which she explores her musical influences and philosophy as does her own website – a rich and thought-provoking resource.

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