“…not ‘just’ a great composer…” Hans Keller and Beethoven

Beethoven by Joseph Willibrord Mähler, 1815.

“… here is, not ‘just’ a great composer, but one of the most towering minds in the history of culture and civilization – humanity has not, in demonstrable fact, thrown up anything greater …”  So writes Hans Keller in his ‘Slow Introduction’ to an unfinished and unpublished manuscript dating from about 1971 held here in his archive on Beethoven’s String Quartet in B flat, op.130.  He expresses similar admiration in an article for The Listener of 9 April 1970 on the Beethoven String Quartets, where he writes: “…a mind whose size promises to remain unexceeded in the history of what makes us human…”

For Keller, Beethoven represented the ultimate expression of musical genius. There is, throughout his writing about the composer, the deepest respect for Beethoven’s originality and his fearlessness in its expression. Nowhere is this more evident than in Keller’s articles, programme notes and talks on the late string quartets, which – alongside the ‘45’ great quartets of Haydn – occupied a particular place of honour in his musical pantheon. For him, they reached far beyond any other composer’s thinking and in the same Listener article he writes this of Op.135, the final quartet:

…it isn’t the same ‘period’ as the Last Quartets at all. In fact, Beethoven survived his Last Quartets characteristically: Op. 135, the last before he died, is a First, the beginning of an entirely new style, the Sixth Period approximately, whose development he did not live to hear with his deaf, clairvoyant ears – the beginning of a future we shall never hear. The reality  a seer doesn’t see remains unrealised, and Beethoven was indeed a deaf hearer the way great seers are blind: everything remains to be investigated about his deafness, both psychologically and aesthetically.

“His deaf clairvoyant ears” – a masterly phrase. In the Op.130 ‘Slow Introduction’ MS, Keller puts forward the thought that in order to appreciate to the full Beethoven’s extraordinary development of the form in these late works we have to try to hear them as Beethoven ‘heard them inwardly’. He goes on:

… he had the tragic good fortune of only being able to hear them inwardly. In view of his elemental drive for independence, unequalled at any previous stage in the history of our art, we might well ask ourselves whether there isn’t a psychosomatic problem here, whether his deafness was not at least helped along by his obvious need to remain uninfluenced by, and surge away from, contemporary sound-ideals surrounding him. The conscious tragedy, unfathomable in the pain it must have caused, is one thing; the unconscious fulfilment involved may have been another.

An intriguing assertion, especially when one considers the ever-present tinnitus he suffered (Beethoven had complained to his doctor, Wegeler, in a letter of 1801 that his ears ‘whistled and roared all day’). Who knows? How can we? Here is but a single example from the considerable body of literature debating the subject, but it too avoids the issue of psychosomaticism: Harrison, P. The effects of deafness on musical composition. JRMS, vol.81, Oct 1988.

The ear trumpet made for Beethoven by Maelzel

It’s an issue Keller would have returned to had his full biography of Beethoven ever come to fruition. In the spring of 1978, he received a letter from Malcolm Gerratt at Dent asking him whether he would be interested in writing a book on the composer. Keller responded quickly and positively on 3rd May, writing ‘I passionately welcome your new idea of a Beethoven book’ and that July sent Gerratt an outline, which, if it had been realised, may have been at once both ground-breaking and controversial.

14th July 1978

Dear Malcolm Gerratt,

Further to our telephone conversation, and with renewed apologies, here it is. You will see that I am not bothering to put all the works in, for the simple reason that everything crucial will be included. I am, however, giving you a few clues – which can be multiplied at our forthcoming luncheon, assuming that you take to the ground-plan.

Beethoven: his Creative Character

1. The Nature of Genius (7,000 words)

  • Genius in general.
  • Musical Genius.
  • Can geniuses be compared?

2. Mankind’s Greatest Mind? (10,000 words)

  • What does a genius succeed in?
  • Beethoven’s creative aims and their realization.
  • What does genius fail in?
  • Beethoven’s creative failures (if any).

3. Life and Work. (15,000 words)

  • An anti-biography of Beethoven: the irrelevance of his extra-musical life.
  • ‘Life and Work’: a question-begging juxtaposition, in that a genius puts his personality into his work rather than his life.
  • The one respect in which Beethoven’s life impinged: his deafness.

4. Every curse a Blessing (13,000 words)

  • Beethoven’s Deafness: A comparison with Smetana’s
  • Beethoven’s Talent (or lack of): A Comparison with Mozart’s.
  • Beethoven’s Neglect of Beauty.
  • Beethoven the Moralizer (Fidelio).

5. Joy (15,000 words)

  • Musical joy and its Pitfalls.
  • Mixed Joy – from Mozart to the present day.
  • Unmixed, profound joy – from Bach thru’ Beethoven’s Choral Fantasia and Ninth Symphony (finale) to his last complete movement, the second finale of Op. 130

6. Sadness (15,000 words)

  • Musical Sadness and its Pitfalls.
  • Mixed Sadness – from Mozart to the present day.
  • Unmixed, profound sadness – from Bach to the Cavatina from Beethoven’s Op. 130.

7. Constructive Aggression (7,000 words)
8. The Developer (7,000 words)
9. The Thinker (10,000 words)
10. His Public Secrets (orchestral music) (6,000 words)
11. The Secret Scientist (chamber music) (15,000 words)

Total: 120,000 words – which can, if necessary, be much reduced.


Hans Keller

The first two pages of the manuscript of the unfinished and unpublished work on Beethoven’s String Quartet in B flat, op.130. CUL Hans Keller Archive

Alas and alack, this frustrating glimpse into what might have been is all we have. Of one thing we can be sure – it would have been utterly different from anything which had gone before…and perhaps anything which has been written since, developing as it would have done Keller’s overarching view so beautifully expressed in another Listener article:

Beethoven was the one exoteric who remained utterly esoteric at the same time…if we apply the simple comprehensive criterion of who said most to most – as consistently, clearly and briefly as possible, who communicated all and conceded nothing, it is arguable that Beethoven was not only the greatest composer but mankind’s greatest mind altogether…Listener 10 December 1970. ‘The greatest mind ever?’




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2 Responses to “…not ‘just’ a great composer…” Hans Keller and Beethoven

  1. Pingback: Behind the notes: Keller, Beethoven and Functional Analysis | MusiCB3 Blog

  2. Pingback: No mere trifle: Beethoven 250 | MusiCB3 Blog

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