Behind the notes: Keller, Beethoven and Functional Analysis

Beethoven by Joseph Willibrord Mähler, 1815.

You may have noticed, dear reader, that this year we celebrate the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth. So, to kick off our own celebrations here at MusiCB3, I thought we would combine two extraordinary musical minds and look at Hans Keller’s functional analyses of two of Beethoven’s best-loved works: his String Quartet in F minor, Op. 95 (FA No. 2) and his Piano Concerto no. 4 in G major, Op. 58 (FA No. 8). Here, then, goes…

In ‘Symphonic Thought and Feeling’ an essay-cum-programme note written for the Prom concert on 5 September 1979 in which Beethoven’s Fourth Piano concerto was played by Daniel Barenboim with the Israel Philhamonic and Zubin Mehta, Keller sets out, in a nutshell, the essence of the work which he explores in his FA:

“Beethoven was indeed nothing if he was not a symphonic thinker, in everything he did. And unlike Mozart, he tended to think his feelings consciously, alive to their challenge to the very traditions within which – beyond which – he had decided to work: they invariably prompted him to find untraditional solutions to traditional problems.” He discusses the opening of the work – a solo statement by the pianist “proceeding to the strings’ response to the soloist, whose opening ever-recurring B is subjected to a breath-taking reinterpretation…the abrupt B major chord visits, as it were, the music from another planet…Beethoven combines overwhelming contrast within the narrowest of spaces with close, if hidden unity, enabling us to follow the continuity of his dramatic lyricism without difficulty. However, continuity is one thing; extended, large-scale unity another. Both the harmonic dislocation of this basic theme and its textural juxtaposition of piano and strings look deep in to the concerto’s further symphonic evolution.”

Functional Analysis of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4 in G major, Op. 58. MS.Add.9371/19
Published with the kind permission of the Cosman Keller Art and Music Trust and the Syndics of Cambridge University Library. Photo by Sarah Chapman

It was, in fact, Clifford Curzon, at Keller’s request, who had chosen this particular work to be the subject of an FA – Keller was delighted, writing in a letter to BBC Producer Roger Fiske of 7 Apr 1959 held in the BBC Written Archives Centre:

“This is the kind of collaboration I’ve been dreaming of ever since [FA] No.1.  I suppose it’s platitudinous to say that there is all the difference in the world between a first-rate artist and a great one, but one is human enough to rediscover the fact when one’s own work is involved.”

A few days earlier, in a letter to Curzon himself, he had set out the fundamental purpose of this approach to analysis:

“FA is concerned with background unity of contrasts, not with foreground resemblances whose structural significance is, to me, doubtful” going on to respond to Curzon’s diffidence as to his ability to come up to scratch: “FA no.8: the suggestion that you cd, at any point in any respect “make a fool of yourself” is so profoundly ridiculous that, for once, words fail me (outside the artists’ room).  Meanwhile, you will have received the score & seen that it’s all perfectly straightbackward. Happier abt this collaboration than I can say.” [CUL Keller Archive]

Indeed, as Curzon worked on the score, he found the original concerto and Keller’s analysis merging in his mind to the point where it became increasingly difficult to separate the two – thus, perhaps, underlining the depth of Keller’s insight. The ‘work’ was performed at Maida Vale to a live audience on 20 April 1959 and broadcast on the Third Programme on 6 May.

This had not been the first work of Beethoven’s to receive Keller’s functionally analytic ear – that had been the String Quartet in F minor, Op.95  the subject of his second essay in the form, broadcast by the BBC on 2 March 1958 and performed by the Pro Musica Quartet. It was Roger Fiske’s suggestion – Keller had refused to choose a candidate, stipulating only that he must understand the work and later wrote in his article “Wordless Functional Analysis: the first year” – Music Review of August 1958 (pp. 192-200): “It was an excellent choice. The contrasts are violent; the work is incredibly short. I thus had the chance to write a far longer, far more complex analysis within about the same total playing time as that needed for the Mozart [K.421]: FA no. 1 comprises 260 bars, whereas FA no. 2 extends over 601 bars.”

Functional Analysis of Beethoven’s String Quartet in F minor, Op. 95. MS.Add.9371/13.
Published with the kind permission of the Cosman Keller Art and Music Trust and the Syndics of Cambridge University Library. Photo by Sarah Chapman.

Here he is, demonstrating that uncanny insight into the work in a programme note for a concert by the Cremona Quartet given on 21 January 1968 at the Queen Elizabeth Hall:

“Beethoven’s only F minor Quartet (1810) – which no longer belongs to his middle period and not yet to his last – is the most compressed work in the history of the medium; not until the first movement of Schoenberg’s Second Quartet do we encounter a comparable feat of condensation, of an almost savage exclusion not only of inessentials, but even of the less essential essentials…And if the by now banal picture of the genius’ heroic, metaphysical struggle against fate ever had a completely justifiable source, Op. 95 is it – even more so than the Fifth Symphony.

The compression does not only result in abrupt thematic contrasts – the second subject of the first movement is reached as early as bar 24 – but is made possible, in the first place, by abruptness being elevated, paradoxically, to the chief means of continuity. Thus, the opening statement is soon and suddenly followed by its restatement, the abruptness lying in the harmony which, without warning, moves up a semitone, to the so-called Neapolitan degree (G flat major). As I have tried to show in my wordless functional analysis of the quartet, this semitonal relationship remains thematic all the way, not only in the first movement – as indeed does the tritone that makes the shift as abrupt as it can possibly be.”

I’ve written in a previous post about Keller’s reverence for Beethoven, whose mind, he suggests, was the ‘greatest mind ever’ and he ends this programme note with a similarly thought-provoking statement:

“Religion has grown weak in our age, but the substance of religion survives, unmolested, in the greatest music – which is why we call it great, whether we admit it to ourselves or not.”

Beethoven in 1815 by Johann Peter Theodor Lyser


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