Proms, Hans Keller, and, Beethoven 250

Beethoven by Joseph Willibrord Mähler, 1815.

Two for the price of one this week we’re delighted to say. It will come as no surprise for Hans Keller fans out there to learn that he wrote many programme notes for Proms concerts – primarily during the 1960s when he was employed by the BBC as – in short order – Chief Assistant, Chamber Music and Recitals and Chief Assistant, Orchestral and Choral and therefore on the “inside”. Of the 43 Proms notes which survive in his archive here in Cambridge, nine of them cover works by Beethoven and so it seems logical (reasonable?) in Ludwig’s 250th anniversary year to investigate further and see where the 2020 season and Keller’s notes might overlap…

In the Good Old Days, Friday night pre WWII and into the mid 1960s (and this little essay is being posted on a Friday of course) was always, but always, Beethoven night at the Proms (just as Monday was devoted to Wagner, although these faded rather during the 1930s). Ah, how lovely to have a little certainty in life. Browsing through the marvellous Proms Archive pages for 1935, for example, what strikes one immediately is how much longer the concerts were – the first half of the Friday concerts devoted to Beethoven would, today, form an entire concert. People had tougher ears in those days!

So, overture and beginners please! For our overture, here is Keller on Coriolan, from 18 Aug 1961 given by the BBC SO and Sir Malcolm Sargent. I need say no more…

The date of this great sonata form, compressed yet able to stand on its own feet as a powerful single-movement work, is 1807. The play for which it was written was not Shakespeare’s, but Heinrich Joseph von Collin’s (1771 – 1811). However, both Collin and Beethoven had read Shakespeare, and it is, of course, in Shakespearean regions that Beethoven’s mind moves: it would not help us much to read up Collin.

The major one-movement form based on the sharp dramatic contrasts that are the essence of sonata is one of those discoveries of Beethoven’s that have proved fruitful for succeeding geniuses right up to the present day. Now, historical listening is a dangerous occupation because musical comprehension stands and falls with the listener’s spontaneity. But once we have taken in this masterpiece, and before finishing the process of digestion, we might stop to reflect that nothing of this kind had happened before Beethoven: our understanding will be deepened by an amazement that passes it.

Next, I have chosen Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony, given on 25 July 1961 by the London Symphony Orchestra and John Pritchard, and this year to be heard on 6 Aug in a performance from 15 Aug 1994 by the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields and Neville Marriner. Keller’s note concerns itself not so much with the nitty gritty of the structure of the work itself, but of the bigger picture and the composer’s need for contrast both within a work and across his entire output as these extracts show:

Beethoven’s Fourth hardly needs an introduction nowadays, though fortunately, there always are people who hear it for the first time (even amongst those who have heard it twenty times already). But whatever problems it may pose, the language in which it poses them is no longer problematic, and whereas Weber first hated it (‘revolting alike to the nature of the instruments and the expression of thought’) and then loved it, we are in the historically privileged position of being able to love it immediately.

Hear, hear: it was one of the set works I did for ‘O’ level back in the last century sometime and has a special place in my heart. He ends his note thus:

The contrast between the slow introduction and the body of the first movement is of a magnitude the like of which had never been witnessed before. Yet it is not abrupt, but carefully prepared thematically; the continuity proves as strong as the contrast, as it must if the musical thought expressing a radical change of emotion is to remain comprehensible. No wonder, nevertheless, that this kind of thing fell on sceptical ears when it was first heard; but once we fully understand these first few pages, we do know Beethoven – a mind which, arguably, was the greatest in the whole history of Western culture, or at any rate the most independent among the great.

I am always, always struck by the ease with which Keller moves from the specific to the panoramically general in his ability to unpick the essence of a work, and place not only it in the entire output of a composer but also the composer in the context of his times. This is particularly noticeable in his notes on Beethoven.

Where next? Well, how about the Eroica? Keller’s note for this was for a Prom given on 28 July 1969 by the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Eliahu Inbal. On 20 July 2020, we heard a performance given by the Hallé Orchestra and Sir Mark Elder from 9 August 2014.

True to form, Keller hits us between the eyes (or should that be the ears?) with this stunner of an opening two paragraphs – take that, dear audience member…

Originally a Sinfonia grande intitolata Bonaparte, the Eroica had to change its title when Beethoven demoted Napoleon upon the hero’s, or ex-hero’s, self-promotion to the rank of Emperor. Composed in the years 1803 and 1804, the work is one of the gigantic monuments of Austro-German symphonism – for which very reason its newness is habitually overestimated: musical history just does not proceed in jerks, as dramatizing historians would lead us to believe. The last movement, for instance, is almost invariably described as the first weighty finale in the history of the symphony, shifting the form’s centre of gravity towards the end – as if the “Jupiter” Symphony, which is never called a revolutionary work, hadn’t done that long before!

It is true, at the same time, that so far as extended symphonism is concerned, the world never heard anything like the Eroica before – nor indeed did it thenceforth, until Bruckner came along. Beethoven, that is, never again worked on a comparable scale in purely instrumental symphonic terms; in fact, he and Schoenberg were the two composers in the Austro-German tradition who never did anything twice over: they were the arch-developers who invariably modified their recapitulations – both in and of their works.

And for my finale – here is Keller at the beginning and the end of his note on Beethoven’s 7th Symphony given at the same 1961 Prom as the Coriolan Overture. No words are minced and no punches have been pulled during the writing of this note…

Beethoven finished the Seventh in the spring of 1812. For a considerable time, it used to be known as the romantic symphony. This merely meant that people liked it very much, music being regarded as a romantic art. The last symphony to receive this compliment was Bruckner’s Fourth. At the moment, a different wind is blowing, and maybe people are about to call their pet symphony ‘The Anti-Romantic’. Not that the music itself need be anti-romantic: Webern, the intensest of romantics, has become the ideal of the anti-romantics. Natural musicians do not bother about labels.

The finale, in sonata form, is perhaps best described as one of the sublimest manifestations of Beethoven’s so called vulgarity. It goes to show that taste is nothing to do with genius, except where a genius happens to possess it, which incidentally does not seem to be a frequent occurrence. Otherwise, taste is what the minor artist has instead of genius: and it tends to come late, because by the time something new and strange has become sufficiently conventional to be called tasteful, art has moved on to something else, something new and strange and maybe ‘vulgar’. It is an indication of the enormous power behind this movement – the power of crystal-clear emotional truthfulness, of the self-controlled discovery of the seemingly uncontrollable – that even at this time of the day, nobody would spontaneously describe it as tasteful.

Well, let’s see what the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie conducted by Daniel Harding make of it on 24 August when the Prom that evening is a repeat of their 12 August 2003 Prom.

Happy listening!


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