Gems discovered in underrated Keller

Essays on Music
October 20, 1995

Hans Keller's work, while admired by composers such as Britten, Frankel and Simpson (each of whom dedicated music to him) was met, until comparatively recently, with wariness among academic musicians. Partly this was due to Keller's own well-merited hostility towards the fatuity of much music criticism and partly to his never having written down his "big" book delineating his comprehensive and systematic theory of music.

Perhaps he never did because he had the instincts of a journalist, rather than a writer of treatises; or perhaps it was because he seems to have been extraordinarily unself-regarding towards his own writings: his books, Criticism and The Great Haydn Quartets, though dating from the 1970s, were not published until after his death nearly ten years ago; and his monograph on the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto and his travel book, Jerusalem Diary, still await publication.

There is, moreover, the sheer extent of his writings: the far-from-complete bibliography in the 1985 commemorative issue of Music Analysis lists some 4,000 items, scattered over many journals (some now, inevitably, defunct).

Christopher Wintle, Bayan Northcott and Irene Samuel, have succeeded admirably in Essays on Music in selecting a cross-section of Keller's work which gives a representative impression of the whole domain of his writings on music. (Not included are autobiographical pieces, such as "Vienna 1938" which movingly describes his incarceration by the Nazis, nor those on psychoanalysis per se or on sport.) The assembled pieces - all written in that glittering prose whose logicality is almost disconcerting - are divided into three sections: Criticism, Composers and their Music, and Towards a Theory of Music. The composers analysed range from Haydn to Maxwell Davies and include Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Mendels-sohn, Mahler, Stravinsky, Gershwin, Elgar, Schoenberg and Robert Simpson (although I wish space had been found for Keller's pieces on Skalkottas, Frankel and Gerhard). More significant than this (rarely appreciated) range of empathy, is the intensity of Keller's musical understanding evinced in such a scintilating short piece as "Tristan and the Realism of Adolescence", and in a longer one such as "Strict Serial Technique in Classical Music".

While the longer analytical pieces, collected mainly in Part Three, are justly celebrated, one wonders if the shorter pieces are not yet more striking in their gem-like concision. For instance, in "Towards a Theory of Music", Keller ex£ his theory of music according to which a piece of music communicates (necessarily emotionally) when its clearly defined background of expectations is meaningfully contradicted by its actual sounding foreground, thus diversifying a latent unity; and in "Why this Piece is about Billy Budd" he demonstrates (in 930 words) how music's power - and its untranslatability - is based on the laws of musical logic inverting those of conceptual logic and hence following the Freudian primary processes.

It would seem that Keller's time may at last be coming: his theory, grounded as it is in psychoanalytic notions, shares affinities with much contemporary cultural analysis. This compilation (and more are promised), with its careful bibliographical comments, is an important step towards the rediscovery of Keller's work - towards "conserving his revolutions".

Philip Maher is senior lecturer in mathematics, Middlesex University. He has written on mathematics and music.

Essays on Music

Author - Hans Keller
Editor - Christopher Wintle with Bayan Northcott and Irene Samuel
ISBN - 0 521 46216 9
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £30.00
Pages - 269

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