Hans Keller and the anti-competition

Hans Keller at his desk by Milein Cosman. Published with the kind permission of the Cosman Keller Art and Music Trust

Hans Keller was implacably opposed to the concept of competition in music, maintaining that whilst it was something one could associate with sport, the arts were for communication, not competition. Nonetheless, he sat on many competition juries and judging panels, but fighting a rearguard action at every possible opportunity in the hope of achieving what he felt to be damage limitation. His view was that once a musician achieved mastery, he was not necessarily “better” than everyone else, but “different”. How, he would ask, could one place Huberman, Heifetz, Kreisler and Busch if they all entered a competition?

His rearguard action began as early as the first Leeds Piano Competition, held in 1963, when he sat as Vice Chair to Arthur Bliss’s Chair. Subversion of the system swung into action as he disregarded the conventional marking system, presenting his own to the administrator in a letter of 12 August 1963:

12th August 1963

Dear Mr. Hare,

Here is the description of my marking system for the members of the jury:-

A maximum of twelve marks is at the juror’s disposal for each performance – six positive marks and six negative marks:

+++ (+)(+)(+) – – – (-)(-)(-)

The bracketed plusses and minuses denote minor merits and demerits respectively; the unbracketed plusses and minuses denote major merits and demerits respectively. Any combination between any number of these symbols is possible, so long as not more than three symbols of each kind are used…

The system enables the juror to react and differentiate spontaneously, in terms of his natural artistic and technical judgment.

…If necessary, a further set of symbols, denoting very minor merits and demerits, can be introduced ad hoc.

((+))((+))((+)) ((-))((-))((-))

And if utter mastery or genius should be encountered, the symbols ‘M’ and ‘G’ respectively can be employed in addition to the graded system.

Yours sincerely.

He himself went further with his marksheets, adorning many of them with illustrations which can only be described as the 1960s equivalent of emojis. (For the record, the competition was won by Michael Roll).

Examples of Keller’s idiosyncratic approach to marking for the 1963 Leeds Piano Competition

Gradually, Keller’s one-man-campaign began to have an effect: for example, the EBU agreed that they would no longer hold String Quartet Competitions as such, but String Quartet Days. Their revised conditions were set out as part of the papers for the Radio Programme Committee Meeting of Serious Music Experts, Athens, 19 – 20 February 1979 stating:

“The aim of the 1982 Music Days is to stimulate the development of String Quartet playing and to make outstanding performances from the event available for broadcast…No age limit of any kind is imposed on the members of a quartet.”

The various stages consisted of a public recital (works to be chosen from three groups, the programming of which was entirely for each quartet to decide); an hour spent working before the panel and an invited audience on one of the “45 masterpieces of Haydn” (Keller’s influence could not be more evident here, the session designed specifically to test the quartet’s ability to work together and the leader’s ability to lead) and a shorter period of time similarly on a specially commissioned piece, and finally each quartet would perform a work of its own choice.

Keller playing his viola in a string quartet. Milein Cosman, published with the kind permission of the Cosman Keller Art and Music Trust.

Keller also persuaded Yehudi Menuhin to agree to study sessions as part of the 1985 Violin Concours in Paris, explaining his reasoning to Menuhin in a letter of 6 May 1983:

“…you can learn more about a fiddler if you make him join a quartet and listen to his initial behaviour than if he’s a member: the occasion parallels a sight-reading test. Only, it goes far deeper, for the player in question has to ‘sight-read’ the leader’s and the other players’ intentions – or, if he himself leads, he has to read the other players’ receptivity and potentialities as well as their latent intentions. In short, what one assesses is a first meeting – which may, of course, involve incompatibility; in fact, in well-definable situations, one would hopefully expect a fiddler to be incompatible… the ‘sight-reading’ of other people’s musical personalities and the player’s realistic reactions to them are a rich source of information about his own musical personality and indeed his sheer musicality.”

Yehudi Menuhin in the 1940s

At about the same time, he worked with the European String Teachers’ Association on its report on competitions published in 1984 which concluded that “The competitive spirit is antagonistic to art and to education. The concept of winning – and, even more, of losing – in relation to music is corrupting of artistic and educational values.” Keller would return to the subject again and again in his various journal columns, chipping away at the conventional point of view and arguing for wholesale change.

In conclusion here is Keller writing for his regular column in Music and Musicians. The substance of the piece is essentially a critique of Antony Hopkins’s critique published in The Strad in Dec 1984 of the ESTA report. Keller ends his article thus:

“…Competition in art is a psychotic delusion: art is not sport, and it is impossible to establish an artistic league table with the remotest musical realism. Admittedly, some students are ‘better’ than some others, but from the moment mastery is reached, a musician is not ‘better’ than another, but different from the other.

…However instinctive, art is not instinctual; it is only by way of sublimation that instincts play a role in it. By competing, a musician shows, proves, that he has not yet reached mastery, whenceforth he would only be interested in clearly realising his own understanding – not in killing off anybody else.” [‘The Keller Column: competitions’, Music and Musicians, March 1985.]


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2 Responses to Hans Keller and the anti-competition


    A really interesting contribution, Susi, and I hope it finds some other publication outlet. Thanks.What we aren’t told is what *players* feel about competitions: in my experience, they welcome them for raising standards …oh dear!



  2. Very interesting article. As a player I have been involved in some competitions and of course I find them absolutely ridiculous. It is a fact that what we could be interested in raising is money or concerts, not a prize per se. Art is not meant to be measured or standardized.


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