Hans Keller

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Hans Keller
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.

Life and career[edit]

Keller was born into a wealthy and culturally well-connected Jewish family in Vienna,[1] 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.

It was also from within the BBC that Keller (in collaboration with Susan Bradshaw) perpetrated in 1961 the famous "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.

In 1967, Keller had an infamous 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?”

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 very 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.


  • Hans Keller and Donald Mitchell (Contrs & Eds): Benjamin Britten – A Commentary on His Works from a Group of Specialists (ISBN 0-8371-5623-8).
  • Hans Keller and Milein Cosman: Stravinsky Seen and Heard (Toccata Press; ISBN 0-907689-02-7).
  • Hans Keller (Ed. Julian Hogg): Criticism 1987 (ISBN 0-571-14802-6).
  • Hans Keller: Music, Closed Societies and Football 1986 (ISBN 0-907689-21-3)
  • Hans Keller: The Great Haydn Quartets – Their Interpretation (OUP; ISBN 0-460-86107-7).
  • Hans Keller (Ed. Christopher Wintle): Hans Keller – Essays on Music (ISBN 0-521-67348-8).
  • Hans Keller (Ed. Christopher Wintle): Music and Psychology – From Vienna to London (1939–1952) (ISBN 0-9540123-2-1).
  • Hans Keller (Ed. Gerold W. Gruber): Functional Analysis: the Unity of Contrasting Themes: Complete Edition of the Analytical Scores (Lang 2001; ISBN 3-631-36059-2).
  • A. M. Garnham, Hans Keller and the BBC: the musical conscience of British broadcasting, 1959–79 (Ashgate 2003; ISBN 0-7546-0897-2).
  • The Keller Instinct: TV documentary by Hans Keller and Anton Weinberg (Channel 4, 1985)
  • "Hans Keller: The Last Interview" (conversation with Anton Weinberg, transcr. and ed. Mark Doran, Tempo), No. 195 (January 1996), pp. 6–12.
  • The Keller Column: Essays by Hans Keller (Ed. R. Matthew-Walker, Lengnick & Co., 1990)
  • Der Turm (The Tower) Libretto: Hans Keller (G) (1983), opera in 2 acts by Josef Tal
  • Hans Keller: The Jerusalem Diary – Music, Society and Politics, 1977 and 1979 (ed. C. Wintle & F. Williams) 2001, ISBN 0-9540123-0-5
  • A. M. Garnham, Hans Keller and Internment: The Development of an Emigré Musician 1938–48 (Plumbago 2011; ISBN 978-0-9556087-8-0).
  • Josef Tal: "About My Friend, Hans Keller". In: Music in Time – A Publication of the Jerusalem Rubin Academy of Music and Dance (1988/89), pp. 73–76.


  1. ^ Oxford Dictionary of National Biography: "he described himself as an 'unpious Jew'"


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