Hans Keller on…Schoenberg

Cover of the 1961 Edinburgh Festival programme book

The start of a new series, this, where I give over my pen to Hans Keller and present some of the exquisite pieces which have surfaced from the dustier corners of his archive. This first, on Schoenberg, of whom Keller was a great champion, was published in the 1961 Edinburgh Festival programme book and presents the most insightful setting of the composer’s genius not only in the context of his own times, but in that of other great composers. Keller also provided individual notes for ten of the fifteen works by Schoenberg performed during the Festival. It was, incidentally, the first Festival under the direction of Lord Harewood.

Keller writes:

Everything important happens for the first time. The historical fallacy, to which critics of the arts are particularly liable, is to justify by complete precedent and condemn by its absence; even the illustrious Ernest Newman explained Schoenberg away by showing, quite rightly, that he hadn’t happened before.

Neither had Bach, who came, not too early, but too late for the next generation: his own sons considered him a dry old stick. Neither had Beethoven, whose early works were popular but whose late quartets are still too early for us; we are just beginning to penetrate their mysteries. Neither had Mahler, who seemed un-importable into this country until he suddenly filled its biggest concert halls. As for Schoenberg himself, when I first described him as a great composer, I was called a crank, although that was hardly more than ten years ago and I was by no means a pioneer. Within the last few years, however, significantly after his death, he has fully grown into the consciousness of that part of our musical world that is interested in music after Brahms.

The miniature score of Schoenberg’s op.7 String Quartet with its dedication from the composer to his great friend Oskar Adler. Performed by the Drolc Quartet on 21 August 1961. (Hans Keller Archive)

Not that one should be interested in music after Brahms if one doesn’t want to; thou shalt love this or that music is an invitation to hypocrisy, the gravest danger in an anxious and uncertain culture. What is one’s duty is not to make a virtue of one’s ignorance by fighting what one does not understand.

The present Festival should make history in that it is the first to stretch right across Schoenberg’s output, from the 26-year-old’s Gurrelieder to his last work, De Profundis,  written half a century later. The musical distance is bewildering, the span of development stunning, and one searches, forgivably, for some kind of creative precedent, in an attempt to find one’s bearings.

The precedent of the unprecedented is indeed always worth looking for; nothing helps one more to understand the character of uniqueness by comparison and contrast. Now, unlike Mozart and like Beethoven, Schoenberg was incapable of repeating himself; and like Beethoven, he developed, at breath-taking speed, almost beyond recognition, traversing, as it were, the creative lives of several successive composers. Let us not deceive ourselves; however penetrating our musicianship, if we did not know Beethoven, and if, say, Op. 135 were played to us together with one of the quartets from Op. 18, we should not guess that the works were by the same composer.

Yet, the more one comes to understand Beethoven, the less can one ‘do’ without his development; his life’s work is indeed a work, an ever-evolving whole, in a sense in which Bach’s or Mozart’s is not.

The MS of the first page of Keller’s article on Schoenberg for the 1961 Edinburgh Festival brochure. (Hans Keller Archive BBC/F3a)

It is only since we have at least partly absorbed the shock of atonality that we have begun to experience this same profound continuity in Schoenberg’s musical development (and as we know from all great masterpieces, continuity does not mean lack of contrast). Not only have we discovered tonality in his atonal works and atonality in his tonal ones (even the D minor Quartet), but we have come to realise that when all is said and done, the revolution that is atonality is of minor significance when compared with the simultaneous, consistent evolution of Schoenberg’s creative thought. Nor can we be blamed for hearing things out of proportion to begin with: Schoenberg himself was shocked by his keylessness until he got used to it.

Was it really necessary? No amount of theorising can yield an answer without raising further questions among the musically unconvinced. In either case, however, the basic answer lies in the music itself, from which all good theory must spring.


And, for interest, here is a short extract of what David Cairns had to say in his deeply honest and engaging Spectator review of the first week of the Festival (1 Sep 1961, pp 19-20):

Lord Harewood has begun boldly; the pattern this year is provided by Schoenberg, but it could equally well be Berlioz, Haydn or Mahler. It is the continuity, the review of a corpus of work, that is fundamental, not the modernity.

In its first six days the festival last week gave us Gurrelieder, the Five Pieces for Orchestra op. 10, the Orchestral Variations, the Wind Quintet, and all four String Quartets, arranged so that it was possible broadly to follow from day to day Schoenberg’s momentous development from the thick of the post-Tristan mire to the liberating rigours of serialism….

Whether the audiences have liked Schoenberg or—no less relevant in this imperfect world— whether they have believed that they liked him are questions not within my capacity to answer, least of all when I cannot even answer them unequivocally in my own case. As for determining for one’s own satisfaction his stature among great and less great composers, assessment is impossible without thorough understanding, and understanding comes out of direct unclouded experience. I can accept Mr. Hans Keller’s statement that twelve-note music’s greatest achievement and purpose was to rescue sonata form, stricken by the downfall of tonality, and that Schoenberg turned towards it out of a sense of tragic loss, the tone-row replacing the triad as the unifying principle; but I cannot live the truth of this through personal experience because my grasp of the mature Schoenbergian idiom is too rudimentary for me to feel form and structure as living entities—I cannot yet ‘hear’ it. (If this makes me no better than I ought to be, at least I know at first hand how the problem must appear to many concert-goers.)

Over to you, dear reader, to question yourself on your own reactions to Schoenberg.

And finally, I am reminded that I promised the answers to the little Keller Quiz I shared on 12 July. Well, here they are: 1. Purcell 2. Britten 3. Peter Pears 4. Peter Grimes 5. Cosi fan Tutte 6. Messiah 7. J. S. Bach 8. Handel 9. Don Giovanni 10. Don Juan 11. Haydn 12. Brahms and 13. Walton. Full house anyone? Congratulations and feel quietly smug if so…The trick for Q4 and Q5 was to know that Keller turned up at Sadler’s Wells expecting to hear a performance of Cosi but got his dates in a muddle and actually heard Grimes. Pears was in both productions.


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