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The Hans Keller Centenary 2019

On 11 March 2019, British Music celebrates the centenary of the birth of Hans Keller, the combative and charismatic Anglo-Austrian music critic who dominated the London Music scene up until his death in 1985.

Photograph by Gerti Deutsch

He was remembered, among many things, for his scathing attacks on fellow musical critics (dating from his days as co-editor of Music Survey (1949-52)), for his distinctive broadcasts on the BBC (whose staff he joined from 1959-79), his many critical columns (especially in The Listener and The Spectator), his wordless musical analyses (‘Functional Analysis’), his obsessive attention to film music, his football reports, his tireless advocacy of Benjamin Britten, and his role as a chamber music coach (witness his posthumous book The Great Haydn [String] Quartets: Their Interpretation). He fled Vienna in 1938, a victim of Kristallnacht, and, after a period of internment, joined his extended family in London, where he remained for the rest of his life (in due course he married the artist Milein Cosman). Following his arrival in the UK, he devoted his early years to interests that shaped his thought for life. As a passionate Freudian, a psychological field worker and a cultured essayist, he wrote and spoke about music and society in a style that was consistently forensic, aphoristic and elegantly colloquial: ‘A woman with a past has more sex appeal than a man without a future.’ ‘The older people grow, the more they resemble themselves.’ ‘Laziness is the supreme virtue of the ungifted.’ For those who knew him, he was also a caring and witty companion.

Images reproduced with permission from the Milein Cosman Archive

In his lifetime he authored three books: 1975 (1984 minus 9), a collection of essays devoted to politics, psychoanalysis music and football; the study of Haydn quartets mentioned earlier; and the posthumous Criticism, which opens with a scurrilous roll-call of ‘phoney professions’. But since his death many others have appeared: Essays for Music (CUP), Stravinsky (Toccata), and several volumes of the Hans Keller Archive (Plumbago/Boydell) – The Jerusalem Diary, Music and Psychology, Film Music and Beyond, Hans Keller and Internment, Britten and the forthcoming Four Lectures on Beethoven’s String Quartet in B flat major Op. 130. There have also been two cultural studies – Hans Keller and the BBC (Ashgate) and the recent Hans Keller: A Musician in Dialogue with His Times (Routledge). Yet, for all the diversity of his prolific writings, there is a unifying stance, expressible only as an irreducible paradox:  on the one hand, he was an intensely engaged critic and partisan for countless causes; and on the other, a dispassionate investigator as much interested in the ‘philosophy of criticism’ as in criticism itself, as preoccupied with the ‘typologies of creative character’ as with performers and creators. Moreover, it was a stance with pedigree. For he was heir to a great tradition of Austro-German letters, and frequently cited Goethe, Schiller, Kant, Nietzsche, Spengler, Kafka and Freud among others. But unlike his forbears, he wrote in English. And it was the union of native European thought with an almost faultless grasp of British idiom that made him one of the distinctive voices of his day. He had nothing if not the courage of his convictions, and, in our fractured times, he is genuinely sorely missed.

Images reproduced with permission from the Milein Cosman Archive


Christopher Wintle is Chair of The Cosman Keller Art and Music Trust, Hans Keller’s Literary Executor, and Director of The Hans Keller Archive, the papers of which are held in the Cambridge University Library. The papers provide the source material for the series published by Plumbago Books in conjunction with Boydell & Brewer.

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