At the Event: Hans Keller on Beethoven’s String Quartet in B flat, Op.130

Beethoven’s String Quartet in B flat, Op.130: four lectures by Hans Keller. London: Plumbago Books, 2019

Last Tuesday (29th October) it was my great pleasure to attend the launch of not one, but two, volumes of material drawn from the Hans Keller archive: the re-issue of his ‘Jerusalem Diary’ and  – this, the main focus (is that tautology?) of the evening – his November 1973 lectures given at the University of Leeds on Beethoven’s String Quartet in B flat, Op.130. The evening was hosted with his usual consummate eloquence by Christopher Wintle, currently Chair of the Cosman Keller Art and Music Trust and Director of Plumbago Books under whose imprint both titles are published via Boydell and Brewer. We were assembled in the gracious surroundings of the Austrian Cultural Forum in Rutland Gate. What, I asked myself, was not to like?

The eagle-eyed and crystal-clear memoried of you will have noticed immediately that I referred to ‘Jerusalem Diary’ without the definite article preceding it. A gentle, silent correction made this time round as it is, of course, Keller’s original title of the diary he kept on his visits to Mishkenot Sha’nanim in 1977 and 1979. His and his wife Milein Cosman’s pen portraits of cultural, political and daily life in the city at the time are compelling in their immediacy. Manuscripts of both diaries are kept in the Keller Archive

However, the focus of the evening was the volume of lectures on Beethoven’s Op.130. It was Alexander Goehr, then Professor of Music at Leeds University, who had issued an invitation to Keller to give these talks. The many music examples were played live by the Aeolian Quartet. All four talks were recorded by the BBC and broadcast not once, not twice, but three times in 1975, 1977 and 1990 respectively. At the launch, Christopher Wintle gave us a short, eloquent, introduction setting the lectures and their genesis in context with consummate skill after which we were treated to movements four (the “Alla Tedesca”) and five (the Cavatina) from Op.130 played with great perception by the Clova Quartet from the Royal Academy of Music who are working with Levon Chilingirian (whose own quartet had, in turn, worked with Keller in the 1970s). I admit I was utterly transported by their performance, particularly of the ‘Cavatina’.

Keller felt that, of all the late quartets, Op. 130 was the most original, the one which went furthest beyond the boundaries of convention formally, tonally and texturally in its composition. However, gentle reader, rather than spoil the fun by disclosing the detail of his lectures (which would, in any case, be the longest blog post ever), instead, I would like to whet your appetite before you purchase your copy of the book, by sharing some of his thoughts from the “Slow Introduction” of a different work – his unfinished monograph on Op.130, the manuscript of which is here in the Keller Archive at the University Library. It was begun in 1970, prompted by the bi-centenary of Beethoven’s birth, and quite probably as a reaction to Joseph Kerman’s 1967 monograph The Beethoven Quartets. New York: Knopf, 1967 [M668.c.95.8]. I cede my pen (or perhaps that should be keyboard):

…even though the 300thanniversary performance [Keller was writing this during the Beethoven 200thanniversary year, 1970, and is probably being ironic here, exaggerating the number of times he had heard the symphony] of the Fifth Symphony may have proved less comprehending than any of the savage executions one could remember, one suddenly became alive to the fact that once again, one was grateful for being allowed to be there, to listen to the unmurderable Beethoven, to marvel at the music’s toughness, at the survival of the fittest art, at the inexhaustible newness of music one knows from memory, yet still doesn’t know enough – and never will, at any rate on this side of life…

Beethoven in 1815 by Johann Peter Theodor Lyser

So ruthless is this composer’s originality – I chose the word ‘ruthless’ advisedly, for there is challenging, provocative aggression in his unswerving insistence on independent thought – that later creators are as liable to misunderstand it as to understand it … 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 … it is downright overwhelming to observe how Beethoven, in the first of his last quartets, turned his youthful mistake into a sublimely new type of string-quartet writing, absolutely unprecedented texturally, and expressing, of course, the newest thoughts … we have to follow the far-reaching development of his sound-ideals, the way he changed some of the very elements of ‘good string quartet writing’, if we want to hear his maturest textures as he heard them inwardly – and we can only do so if we let our players’ knowledge of ‘good quartet sound’ be influenced and where necessary, revised by the substance of Beethoven’s thoughts.

… I do honestly think – I think I know – that none of us understands the late Beethoven quartets as well as we understand Haydn and Mozart quartets. They are the only music of the past which, if we are musically honest – and otherwise why be artists at all? – we have to treat as music of the future … the music will never release us, even though now and again, we are let out on parole to study the Bartok and Schoenberg quartets, which actually help us to penetrate deeper into these mysteries…

Portrait of Hans Keller by Milein Cosman, found in a notebook from the early 1950s. © Cambridge University Library. Published with the kind permission of the Cosman Keller Art and Music Trust.

… But while I felt ready to write, in extenso, about the Haydn or Mozart or Mendelssohn quartets, or about contemporary quartets for that matter, or indeed early and middle Beethoven and op.95, I have always shied off the last quartets: I wanted to be absolutely sure that I was unsure before I started. I believe I have reached that stage now, and that the certainty with which I am prepared to pronounce on other people’s arrogance, and the misjudgements that spring from it, will be matched by an unflinching humility towards Beethoven’s music, with the intermittent uncertainty that springs from it: if this book has no other virtue, it will, to my knowledge, be the first to say ‘I don’t know’ where it doesn’t know …

‘I wanted to be absolutely sure that I was unsure…’: this is surely an astonishing admission for Keller to make given his deeply held view that no-one should discuss any piece of music that they do not feel they know enough about – to be prepared to write at length about a work which, in places, he admits that he does not understand. More follows:

… for me, the achievement of a true, plausible, meaningful string-quartet sound on the Grosse Fuge is impossible … for another thing, I don’t altogether understand the structure anyway, and never mind the sound. The abrupt end, for instance, is absolutely incomprehensible to me: the structural balance that must be implied escapes me …


He ends his Slow Introduction on a suitably futuristic note:

If you don’t get the striving for metaphysical truth out of Op.130, you are nowhere near its centre … and now, I have done with the most old-fashioned words of this book. In 2027, they may look different again, Beethoven will no doubt sound different and, for the rest, nobody will understand how it was possible, as recently as 1971, for this book to be the first on a single instrumental work. Why, a book on all the late quartets will by then be considered sheer ephemeral journalism.

[Beethoven Op. 130, MS, 1ff. CUL Keller Archive]

Dear readers, we have only seven years to prove him right…don’t let’s let him down!


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