From the Editor’s spike: Hans Keller and Haydn’s 250th anniversary

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

Here in the Hans Keller archive there are several boxes of unpublished articles spanning the whole of Keller’s writing career. The flow of ideas was unstoppable and clearly outstripped the speed at which editors and typesetters could keep up. Doing a little research recently, I came across this piece written for the March/April 1982 issue of Musical Times which celebrated the 250th anniversary of Haydn’s birth. Its part-review and part-reminiscence approach didn’t quite match the brief and so after some back-and-forth between Keller and the then MT Editor Stanley Sadie (whose archive we have here at the UL), there was a gentlemen’s agreement to disagree and not to publish (In any case, Keller simply refused to allow anyone to alter any of his writing, and this was no exception). What the piece does do, however, is offer a tantalising glimpse of the depth of knowledge and understanding of Haydn’s Quartets which Keller possessed and which formed the roots of his musical thought. Over to HK:

I only know two people with whom I can, rewardingly, discuss the great Haydn quartets, forty-five of them – who know them well enough. One is, of course, H. C. Robbins Landon, the presenter of BBC 2’s seven Haydn Festival programmes – but, it seems to me, hardly their sole planner.

The festival’s policy, understandable from a mass-communicative standpoint, was to concentrate on Haydn at his best known. But when I discovered that the quartet chosen to represent the composer’s – indeed instrumental music’s – weightiest form was the ‘Emperor’ [Op. 76 no.3] (1 April: Amadeus, disgracefully without the outer movements’ repeats), I just could not believe that Landon was responsible for the choice. Too well did I remember a conversation we’d had decades ago – about the puzzling texture of the outer movements of this masterpiece: their quasi-orchestral writing makes it the only great Haydn quartet which largely renounces the infinite subtleties of his characteristic quartet texture, so that one wonders whether the specific occasion made this exceptional approach desirable.

Now, the ‘Emperor’ isn’t the only ‘most famous’ Haydn quartet, and I’d have expected Landon to pick one of the other ‘celebrated’ works, all fully representative of his unsurpassed, refined quartet-writing. I have tried to find out what happened – and authoritative rumour has it that the ‘Emperor’ was, in fact, virtually forced on Landon, whose own suggestion had been the ‘Fifths’ [Op.76 no.2], which would have been an ideal choice for this televisual purpose, easily audible (and visible!) mono-motivicism and all.

Before Landon himself appeared in the first programme on Haydn’s birthday (31 March), an anonymous voice told us that the world owed the Haydn renaissance to Britain in the first place – where his music had ‘never died out’, even though his reputation had ‘waned’. I would submit that profound musicians the world over, especially those who – like the teenage Schoenberg – played string quartets, had always been aware of Haydn’s stature. I am lucky enough to owe my central musical education to the quartet leader of Schoenberg’s youth (himself Schoenberg’s first teacher!)* – with the result that by my early teens, I had acquired a comprehensive and intimate inside knowledge of, at least, the aforesaid forty-five. So far as they were concerned, then, the BBC’s own Haydn renaissance, which started in 1960, was almost entirely due to my own efforts, enthusiastically supported by my boss, William Glock, himself a realistic admirer of the first great quartet composer, who, at the same time, was to remain the only creator of dozens of supreme, utterly different masterpieces for the medium.

[* This was Oskar Adler. SW]

That they – and especially those which don’t happen to be among the ‘Ten’ or ‘Fifteen’ or ‘Twenty Celebrated’ ones – should have remained uncelebrated on Haydn’s 250th birthday (and indeed in this journal’s birthday issue) is hardly evidence for a leading Haydn renaissance: they are musical history’s most extended series of complex, contrasting, largest-scale masterpieces. Radio 3’s own Haydn day (31 March) was, in this respect, downright grotesque: the single quartet broadcast was the last complete one, known to everybody who knows one or two [Op.77 no.2 in F]. I got it in my sight-reading test during my LRAM exam – and had difficulty in not calling my examiners illiterate. But I did point out that I knew it, ‘of course’ (reprimandingly). For the rest, Radio 3 seems to be making amends: Haydn String Quartets (April 3) was the ‘first in a series … of the mature quartets from Op.20 onwards’ – which means that only one of the forty-five will remain unbroadcast: the D minor from Op.9, his first inspired masterpiece.

The most original and individualistic quartets – the most sublime – are not among the ‘celebrated’, which are dominated by symmetrical themes, duly nicknamed. As yet, there is not a single leading quartet that plays, or has played, them all. Once the forty-five will have become the quartet player’s and listener’s and musicologist’s and composer’s ‘48’, the greatest – the most symphonic – Haydn will have been, not reborn, but born.


March 1982

Postscript: Keller brought his thoughts on  “the forty-five” together in the  posthumously-published Great Haydn Quartets (Dent, 1986) [M668.c.95.53]

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