Hans Keller

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Hans Keller
Genres Classical
Years active1938–1985

Hans (Heinrich) Keller (11 March 1919 6 November 1985) was an Austrian-born British musician and writer, who made significant contributions to musicology and music criticism, as well as being a commentator on such disparate fields as psychoanalysis and football. In the late 1950s, he invented the method of "wordless functional analysis", in which a musical composition is analysed in musical sound alone, without any words being heard or read. He worked full-time for the BBC between 1959 and 1979. [1]


Life and career

Keller was born into a wealthy and culturally well-connected Jewish family in Vienna, [2] and, as a boy, was taught by the same Oskar Adler who had, decades earlier, been Arnold Schoenberg's boyhood friend and first teacher. He also came to know the composer and performer Franz Schmidt, but was never a formal pupil. In 1938, the Anschluss forced Keller to flee to London (where he had relatives), and, in the years that followed, he became a prominent and influential figure in the UK's musical and music-critical life. Initially active as a violinist and violist, he soon found his niche as a highly prolific and provocative writer on music, as well as an influential teacher, lecturer, broadcaster and coach.

An original thinker never afraid of controversy, Keller's passionate support of composers whose work he saw as under-valued or insufficiently understood made him a tireless advocate of Benjamin Britten and Arnold Schoenberg, as well as an illuminating analyst of figures such as Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven and Mendelssohn. Many of Keller's earliest articles appeared in the journals Music Review and Music Survey , the latter of which was co-edited by him after he joined the founding editor Donald Mitchell for the so-called 'New Series' (1949–52). In later years, much of his advocacy was carried out from within the BBC, where he came to hold several senior positions and was a regular contributor to The Listener magazine.

It was also from within the BBC that Keller (in collaboration with Susan Bradshaw) perpetrated in 1961 the "Piotr Zak" hoax, broadcasting a deliberately nonsensical series of random noises, as a new modernist piece by a fictitious Polish composer. The hoax was designed to demonstrate the poor quality of critical discourse surrounding contemporary music at a problematic stage in its historical development; in this aspect, the hoax was a failure, as no critic expressed any particular enthusiasm for Piotr Zak's piece, with all published reviews being roundly dismissive of the work.[ citation needed ]

In 1967, Keller had an famous encounter with the rock group Pink Floyd (then called "The Pink Floyd") on the TV show The Look of the Week. Keller was generally puzzled by, or even contemptuous of, the group and its music, repeatedly returning to the criticism that they were too loud for his taste. He ended his interview segment with the band by saying: "My verdict is that it is a little bit of a regression to childhood – but, after all, why not?"[ citation needed ]

Keller's gift for systematic thinking, allied to his philosophical and psycho-analytic knowledge, bore fruit in the method of "wordless functional analysis" (abbreviated by the football-loving Keller as "FA"), designed to furnish incontrovertibly audible demonstrations of a masterwork's "all-embracing background unity". This method was developed in tandem with a "Theory of Music" that explicitly considered musical structure from the point of view of listener expectations; the "meaningful contradiction" of expected "background" by unexpectable "foreground" was seen as generating a work's expressive content. An element of Keller's theory of unity was the "Principle of Reversed and Postponed Antecedents and Consequents", which has not been widely adopted. His term "homotonality", however, has proved useful to musicologists in several fields.

Keller was married to the artist Milein Cosman, whose drawings illustrated some of his work.

As a man prominent in the world of 'contemporary music' (even working for several years as the BBC's "Chief Assistant, New Music"), Keller had close personal and professional ties with many composers and was frequently the dedicatee of new compositions. Those who dedicated works to him include:

In December 1979, Keller received the "Special Award" of the Composers' Guild of Great Britain. In September 1985, just weeks before his death from motor neurone disease, he received from the President of Austria the Ehrenkreuz für Wissenschaft und Kunst, 1 Klasse ("Cross of Honour for Arts and Sciences, 1st Class"). His manuscripts (radio broadcasts and musicological writings) are kept at the Cambridge University Library.


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  1. "Hans Keller | Royal College of Music". www.rcm.ac.uk. Retrieved 6 September 2019.
  2. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography: "he described himself as an 'unpious Jew'"