Hans Keller

Hans Keller (1919-1985) was almost certainly the greatest commentator on music of his day. Born in Vienna in 1919, he moved to England as a refugee in 1938. He became a well known writer and broadcaster working for the BBC between 1959 and 1979, and was author of ‘Functional Analysis’, a method of analysis of music using purely musical terms without commentary or explanation.

Particularly ferocious in his attack on ‘phoney professions’, Keller felt that people should be true to their own instincts, and that ‘the lover understands better than the hater’. In the following articles, he discusses Huberman and musical interpretation.

back to criticism >

Today's Tomorrow (1965)
Arrangement for or against? (1969)
Is there performing genius? (1972)
Live BBC discussion on Huberman (1972)
Performer of genius (1983)
The Gramophone Record (1985)
Technique and musicianship (1985)
Performing greatness (1985)

Keller's letter to Huberman (1936)


Today's Tomorrow (Music Review, vol 26, 1965)

The timeless artist is a concept that ought to be accepted by all artistic minds – or at any rate those not afflicted by art’s common cold, which is History. It is only the historian who, his artistic vitality sapped, thinks that the proposition, “Art reflects its time”, is meaningful. True, the works of Mozart and Johann Wenzel Anton Stamitz, bless whatever he had instead of a soul, reflect their time. But in the case of Mozart, who cares? It is where he doesn’t reflect his time that he becomes interesting, inspiring, whereas Stamitz stands or falls as a history book. And when we come to such creators as Haydn, Beethoven, or Schönberg, we have to put the cart before a dead horse and flog the latter if we want to remain historical: what their mature styles “reflect” is circumstances which they themselves created in the first place.

But if great art is timeless, is not the performer in a tragic situation, since he does not survive his time? The other day, one of my best musical friends played me a gramophone record of a violinist he admired, describing him as a modern translation of Huberman, whom he knew I admired. But who wants a modern – i.e. modish – performer anyway? If, on his gramophone records, Huberman’s style now sounds old-fashioned, that is an illusion. He was an individualist, strikingly independent of any fashion. By moving him into historical perspective, we get him out of artistic perspective, hearing his individuality as “his time”. One only has to read Carl Flesch’s Memoirs in order to realize what a lonely figure he was – lonely, that is to say, within the conventions of his profession, not in front of his audiences. And his gramophone records are splendidly successful with our own audiences – thus disproving the assumption that one has to express oneself through the idiom to which one’s audiences are used if one wants to be understood. This, indeed, is one of the few respects in which the anti-musical invention of the gramophone record may prove of musical – anti-historical – value: the performer’s tragedy, if not solved is mitigated, and our ears are broadened and sharpened by such experiences as the Huberman records, which incite us to discover timelessness in our own time.

Nevertheless, one has to admit that there has to be continuity of tradition – including tradition suppressed but still alive – if the past is to be comprehensible to us; whereas what the Huberman records reintroduce to our musical minds are natural expressive means still potentially, and guiltily, alive in all of us, but uneasily resisted by our contemporary playing conventions.

Who then, in our own time, are the performers least affected by stylistic conventional minds, though at the same time – as always – well-loved by the mass (yes, there is such a thing) of naturally artistic minds? They are not amongst the giants of musico-technical achievement (I use the compound because I object to the implication, itself a conventional one, of the “mere virtuosity” of a Heifetz or Horowitz: mere virtuosity doesn’t happen because there is something inside one that moves the fingers and which makes virtuosity a special kind of musicality). On the contrary, their uncompromising individuality seems to prevent them from submitting fully to their technical talent, whose total exploitation, one feels, would make life too easy for them and their listeners, would tempt them – at any historical stage – too close to the field of conventional expression.


Arrangement for or against?
(Musical Times, 23 January 1969)

The European Broadcasting Union concert at the Elizabeth Hall on January 20 comprises Webern’s arrangement of Schoenberg’s First Chamber Symphony, Schoenberg’s ‘Pierrot lunaire’ without (and with) the reciter, and Berg’s own reduction of the Adagio of his Chamber Concerto. Hans Keller discusses the philosophy of arrangement in the light of this programme.

Hugo Riemann (Musiklexikon) in 1882 and Willi Apel (Harvard Dictionary of Music) in 1946 used virtually the same words to define an arrangement: ‘the adaptation of a composition for instruments other than those for which it was originally written …’. But the difference between the 19th and 20th centuries makes itself felt at the end of their respective sentences. Riemann appends an immediate example: ‘the piano reduction of an orchestral work, as opposed to the “original composition”’. Apel, on the other hand, is anxious to understand the nature of an arrangement: ‘thus, in a way, the musical counterpart of a literary translation’.

Riemann, that is to say, draws attention to what was then, before the advent of the gramophone record, the most natural example of an arrangement – one with which he expected every musical reader to be familiar. Apel is no longer struck by any natural examples; instead, he shows the intellect’s inevitable response to what is not altogether natural: he feels obliged to explain it. The attempt is perhaps only moderately successful: his ‘in a way’ admits as much. The underlying assumption is that instrumentation is a ‘language’. The urge to liken something in music, or music itself, to language, in order to come to conceptual grips with it, is profound and chronic: the most successful result is Deryck Cooke’s Language of music, the most metaphorical Donald Mitchell’s Language of modern music. But instrumentation a language? Is The art of fugue, then languageless? Are Haydn’s own different versions of the Seven last words the same piece in different languages? And what do we do with the concept of translation when we come to such undeniable improvements in terms of musical substance as Bach’s Vivaldi arrangements – or, for that matter, such debasements as the Modern Jazz Quartet’s or the Swingle Singers’ Bach, or indeed the 50s’ and 60s’ Gershwin arrangements, simplified ‘almost beyond recognition in harmony and rhythm alike? Where, come to think of it, is the borderline between arrangement and variation? Britten calls sections B, C, D, E and F in The young person’s guide the ‘theme’, but might we not just as well call them variations? Are not the ensuing, official ‘variations’ second-degree departures from the original?

I have chosen my examples tendentiously. The purpose is to discredit our naïve, over-simple belief that ours is the age of authenticity, whereas the 19th century was the age of irresponsibility, excusable only on the level of genius or supreme talent – and even there not invariably: see, for instance, Liszt’s concert arrangements.

The belief is not altogether groundless; few illusions are. We do indeed show an overriding need for authenticity, so much, so unthinkingly so that it looks a little like a collective compulsion, an obsessional neurosis. I recently played some old records of Bronislaw Huberman (1882-1947) to a composer friend, an ex-violinist whom I knew to be interested in unconventional, unstreamlined interpretations. He was delighted – as long as he heard original violin pieces. But when I proposed to play him one of Huberman’s Chopin arrangements (in which, to my mind, he shows more understanding of Chopin’s structures than many a Chopin specialist at the keyboard), he was horrified. In spite (because?) of his own light musical past, he was unwilling to give Huberman the benefit of that minimum of a priori confidence which is a great artist’s due. I did not pursue the matter; I was convinced that a few words would be powerless in the face of our time’s authenticity compulsion. Worse, I thought that even if I let the sound of the record hit him without any further discussion, nothing would happen: the very shock of hearing a violin arrangement of the greatest and most exclusive piano composer in the history of music would deafen him to the musically ‘authentic’ expressiveness of the performance.

Strictly speaking, our authenticity cult is really a mid-century affair: even in the late 30s, when Huberman might play these Chopin arrangements as encores, nobody, not even musicologists, noticed anything amiss. It is, I think, the progressive artistic insecurity of our age that has gradually turned our search for authenticity into a compulsion: the less you know instinctively what’s good, both in creation and in interpretation, the more frantically you depend on extraneous, historical, ‘scientific’ evidence.

Yet the science of it all is often no more than skin-deep. To revert to Huberman for a moment. His (to me) overwhelming interpretation of Bach’s A minor Concerto is extant. By way of aesthetic experiment, I played it to a number of authentically-minded colleagues, who endured Huberman’s portamenti (glissandi in common, but wrong, parliance) only with the greatest difficulty: they felt that Huberman had ‘arranged’ Bach. But had he? Bach himself played without a chin-rest: that device was introduced by Spohr, who had a long neck. Without a chin-rest, it is absolutely impossible to change position without making oneself heard – without sliding gradually through the intermediate pitches: it is only when the left hand does not have to hold the violin, when it is utterly free, that it can proceed to change position quickly and unobtrusively enough for the slide to be concealed, if it has to take place at all. But if the technical portamento was inevitable for Bach, he must have meaningfully incorporated it in his playing style – the invariable fate of audible technique. It follows that the expressive portamento must have played an important part in his violin playing, and that the interpretative ‘arrangements’ by a Huberman or Joachim were in fact nearer the authentic truth than is our own, style-conscious Bach playing – all the more so since Joachim and Huberman, like Bach, did not play sempre vibrato, whereas our own violinists start vibrating as soon as they ascend the platform.

There is no compulsion without a violent reaction against it: animals have no compulsions, and they have no orgies either. The 19th century, the age of Bach-Busoni, would have been aghast at the Swingle Singers, at the regression of creative rhythm to mechanical metre which, at the same time, is regarded as a rhythmical spicing up – Bach’s complex rhythms having, in reality, been replaced by a simple beat accessible to all, with the creative substance proportionately reduced to a tolerable minimum.

But are we ourselves aghast? Highly respectable musicologists have professed ‘amusement’ at this entertainment. Whether they are genuinely amused or think they ought to take part in the orgy in order to be acquitted of excessive puritanism, does not really matter: they symptom is there, and would have been unimaginable in a less insecure age.

As for the 19th and early 20th centuries having been the age of irresponsible arrangements – the earliest arrangements of which we seem to have detailed knowledge, ie the intavolaturas (Intabuliernugen) of the 16th century, tended to be a great deal more unauthentic then, say, even the less conscientious piano reductions of symphonies with which 19th-century literature abounds, and of which they are the 16th-centry counterpart. Perhaps they are more irresponsible, also, than the more styleless and flashy romantic orchestral arrangements of Bach which nowadays are out of aesthetic bounds. Far be it from me to submit that the romantic era, its musical world-view, was blameless; which age is? It merely seems to me that we ourselves are suspect judges of an era against which we have reacted with pious, puritan, and anxiety-ridden zest: perhaps we should leave it to a much later age to judge us both.

Meanwhile, we may allow ourselves to react thoughtfully rather than fearfully (or, conversely, orgiastically) to any particular arrangement that may come our way. The very concept of an ‘arrangement’, which we readily find disquieting, means nothing, so long as we don’t know what has been arranged, what the purpose of the re-creative act is, and how the job has been done. One does not envy Willi Apel his self-chosen task of having to explain what, in principle, an arrangement is: nothing short of a musical theory of cognition would yield a philosophy of arrangements – and such a theory is not very likely to emerge at a stage in [missing end - sorry!]


Is there performing genius? (The Listener, 9 March, 1972)

The role of the musical performer is at once overrated and underrated. Overestimation first: it's the attitude which has always enraged composers - untill and excluding the present day when, paradoxically, performers with an aleatoric proclivity are venerated by composers who have en-trusted them with special (or, more often, not so special) creative tasks. The paradox is that very often it's a veneration of next to nothing, of any old bashing about, of imagination' in inverted commas, such as we get in psychiatrists' reports on psychotic patients, or parents' or teachers' reports on stupid children: after all, God must have given them something. If those inartistic observers who look at art as a remote culture - a developing country, as it were - only knew that no art has ever come out of anybody who lacked intelligence: for all we know, it may have been in him, but it never got out.

So the paradox means that whereas performers who have reached the summit of their art, or at the very least their craft, tend to be despised by composers, performers who haven't reached anything, who show infantile musicality when they play a Chopin waltz inanely, metrically, or even less than metrically, but evince 'imaginative freedom' when it doesn't particularly matter what they're doing, are held in high and advanced esteem. At the same time, there is no meaningful paradox without an unparadoxical side to it: the venerated bashers are receiving the composers' deep-felt, realistic gratitude - for acting as their surrogates. 'Who gets the royalties? ' as William Walton once asked me, with that characteristically factual interest in experimental art which makes our discussions so satisfying.

But even though composers tend to despise any conceited star performer as soon as he has the slightest right to be conceited or, still worse, can play a Paganini concerto, the public loves him: stardom would be difficult on a desert island. Yet it is this very desert island which makes the public love him out of proportion: it's thousands of little desert islands in the listeners' little souls. They can't identify with the great composer, with the compos-ing process: their musicality isn't up to that. They can't imagine themselves composing Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, or his fiddle concerto. What they can empathise with, or think they can, is conducting the one and playing the other - and all their self-admiration, condemned to eternal, infernal latency, is projected onto the performer who can actually do it.

His glorification is frictionlessly intensified by his playing both the fiddle concerto and indeed their game. Let's face it: he can't all that easily think himself into the composing process either, and since the music doesn't exist before he plays it anyway, he has little difficulty in discovering that it's all coming out of him - that, to put it simply and beautifully, playing is composing. This is where he and the aleatoric basher join hands across the abyss that is the thin dividing line between art and mere auto-suggestive or hetero-suggestive stimulation.

Poor, clean reader, you think I am exaggerating. You haven't lived. Years ago, Erwin Stein told me of a traumatic experience he'd had - and he had lived. He'd attended an Eroica performance under a conductor of world repute, now dead - which is why he can't hit back and I won't name him. Stein went into the conductor's room after the performance and congratulated him, three-quarter-heartedly. 'Yes, my friend,' said the conductor, only hearing the three-quarters, 'after all, it isn't all that difficult to compose such a symphony: what is difficult is to perform it, to bring it off.' Nor did he mean it as a bad joke.

And yet the performer is underestimated at the same time. In fact, his very overestimation contributes to his underestimation, because there's not much realistic estimation in that overestimation anyhow: he's largely admired for what the admirer can't do, which is of little interest to him or the composer, though it may interest fellow admirers. Besides, when all's said and played, however conceitedly, the fact remains that any musical performance of substance is necessarily the most concentrated performance, perhaps the most concentrated activity on earth, with the possible exception of prayer, of which I have no adult experience outside music, and which, in any case, doesn't involve any responsibility towards a listener, God apart, who can always be depended upon to forgive the odd slip and overlook any failure of communication: he probably wouldn't notice it if he tried.

Even the great actor has greater latitude, a wider margin of error, in timbre, in pitch, and of course in time: not for him the all-important differences between a triplet rhythm and a dotted rhythm, or a dotted and a double-dotted rhythm, between a calculated ritardando or meno mosso and the spontaneous breath of living agogics as Hugo Riemann called all fractional, un-premeditated, inspired rubatos. (It is amusing, really, that the distinguished, truly awe-inspiring pedant should have been the only one to find a word, however inelegant, for the most important single element in musical interpretation: perhaps he in his turn conjured up magically what he couldn't do.) Where there is no strict metre in the listener's mind, the performer can't deviate infinitesimally from it.

As for the racing driver and the surgeon - well, the former has only himself to kill, whereas the latter has his automatic minutes, none the less fruitful for not depending on spontaneous inspiration, though admittedly he can never de-centrate quite as much as the anaesthetist, who, according to a medical definition, is a chap half-asleep watching over a chap who's half-awake. The good performer can never drop off, never submit to routine: a single phrase into which he doesn't put his whole life-and it's all over.

In fact, that megalomaniac conductor was and is right in one respect, which makes such megalomania all the more effective: Beethoven could sketch and try again when he created the Eroica, but there's no trying, no crossing out, in its re-creation: the conductor and performer simply have to succeed here and now, even more continuously so than the racing driver and the surgeon.

Continuous spontaneous inspiration, inseparable from any great performance, does in fact depend on genuine creativity of a type which those advanced boys who think that past great music imprisons the performer have never yet as much as noticed. And where this creativity is so intense, so uninfluenced by teachers, models or anti-models, that it reaches the narrow stretch of psychological no-man's-land between composition and interpretation, creating the illusion that the work of art is evolving right now for the first time, one is, I think, entitled to call the per-former a genius. Schoenberg's differential diagnosis applies: a talent learns from others, a genius from himself. Of necessity, performing geniuses are, therefore, the rarest of geniuses: their development seems to depend on the psychological accident of their not having grown into full-fledged composers, despite their strong and clear creativity, as well as on supreme technical talent, which depends in its turn on that very creativity-on incisively clear ideas of what they want the music to sound like. For my own part, I have only come across three such minds. One was not widely known-Oskar Adler, the greatest quartet leader I have encountered, who spent most of his musical life in private. The second was Furtwängler, who still speaks for himself. And the third was the violin virtuoso Bronislaw Huberman (1882-1947). All three, significantly, had much in common; Furtwängler and Huberman, overwhelming in their joint, jointly improvised performances, both hated the gramophone - for obvious reasons: to them, a musical performance stood or fell by its unrepeatability. Yet, fortunately, both submitted to the recording machine upon occasion - hence next Friday night's broadcast of Huberman playing the Bach A minor and E major.

Not surprisingly, Huberman was largely self-taught: Joseph Joachim, with whom he studied as a boy, soon told him that he couldn't teach him any more. At the age of 14 he played the Brahms concerto in the composer's presence. Brahms was deeply moved and promised the boy a Fantasy 'if I've got any fantasy left', but died before he could write it. Huberman was half-gypsy, half-saint, combining utter spirituality with an elemental full-bloodednes - without the slightest sign of friction. If, after Friday night, you don't feel that the world of Bach has disclosed natural newness to you, so natural that you can't understand why it should feel so new, I'll take that back about your not having lived - for in that case, you simply are incapable of life.

Huberman's rhythmic freedom and light rhythms; his range of sharply differentiated expression; the intrinsic structural significance of his dynamics, (crescendo, diminuendo, subito piano); the re-inventive variety of his bowings (his distribution of legato and, so far as subtly defined groups of detached notes are concerned, his total contempt for the 'authentic' contempt for spiccato, martelé and saltando); the different kinds of his glissandos (which include, functionally, what is known as the 'gypsy glissando' in Central Europe); the contrasts of his tone-production, which ranges from the most intensely contained, vibrato less sound to passionate explosions; his invariably creative intonation, which is never satisfied with being 'in tune', but varies according to the harmonic implications of the tune; and his refusal ever to repeat a repeated phrase, to ape his own phrasings at any point - all these interpretative char-acter traits leave Bach up there breathless. At a playback of the two records, I marked my scores for the present article - but I find that my first note, over the first solo entry in the A minor, is not readily translatable into musical terminology. It says: 'God!' Nevertheless, you'll hear what I mean.

Also in the episodes that prove the main matter of the E major's rondo, with the principal section, tutti, assuming ever more episodical significance: you needed a Bach to thus contradict expectation, and you need a Huberman to develop the ensuing double contrasts - between episode and tutti, and between episode and episode.


Live talk on BBC (9 March 1972)

[This discussion was given before the Huberman broadcast on 9 March, 1972. Luckily it was taped by Cheniston Roland a violin historian, who kindly sent me a copy.]

The borderline between recreation and creation isn’t always easy to find. We talk a great deal nowadays about objective performance but the fact remains that the greatest performers, those which make us feel that we are witnessing the creative act itself, invariably and inevitably show a composers imagination even a composers invention in their interpretations. When we feel that the piece is being composed here and now it’s because it seems as if the performer himself improvises. In the entire history of musical performance there has only been very few figures who unreservedly believed in composing while playing. In spontaneity, improvisation, in fact to use an old fashioned term, in the need for continuous inspiration. In our own age Wilhelm Furtwängler was one of them and a violinist whom he admired perhaps above all others was another, Bronislaw Huberman who lived from 1882 to 1947. Characteristically enough Huberman was virtually self taught. Joseph Joachim with whom he studied as a boy soon told him that he couldn’t teach him any more. At the age of 14 he played the Brahms fiddle concerto in the composer’s presence. Brahms was deeply moved, wept, and promised the boy a fantasy specially written for him, but died before he could write it. Huberman was not better than other violinists – Heifetz is, but Huberman lived in a different world from all other violinists, Heifetz included, or two different worlds to be exact, the one pretty near heaven, the other pretty close to hell, the more interesting and fruitful part of it.

I said in the current radio times that he was half gypsy, half saint. The way he combined utter spirituality with elemental full bloodedness without the slightest sign of friction between the two worlds can rarely been found in important composers let alone performers. His very technique which was of the highest virtuoso calibre and at the same time uniquely individualistic depended altogether on his inspiration. Schönberg once said that without inspiration he couldn’t even do an exercise in which a mere student might be adept. Mutates mutandis much the same was true of Huberman. He described the need for technical study as the curse of the instrumentalist and had this to say about technique itself; “it’s got to serve its master the spirit and its mistress the soul”. Heaven help us when the slave breaks his chains. Huberman’s metaphors, the master the spirit, the mistress the soul, are autobiographically significant. Extreme contrasts between masculine rhythm and feminine lyricism characterised his playing as much as they characterised Beethoven’s music, from which point of view he was actually a little weird to look at. People tended to say that he looked like a Jewish Beethoven, and together with the Brahms concerto, the Beethoven (quite different every time he played it, every time he improvised it as it were) was perhaps his profoundest achievement.

I have before me a facsimile of a photo of Brahms which the composer sent to Huberman after the boys performance of the concerto and which bears this inscription: “To Bronislaw Huberman so that he may kindly remember Vienna February 1896, and his grateful listener J. Brahms”. But what is interesting about this card is the music quotation which Brahms puts on top of it. It’s the opening of the slow movement of the concerto. Even at that early stage then, Huberman must have played the slow movement with a lyrical intensity which made Brahms select this passage for a quotation. In fact years older Joseph Joachim had written Huberman a certificate as follows. “It gives me pleasure to say that the 9 year old Huberman from Warsaw [actually he wasn’t from Warsaw he was from Chen] possess a quite outstanding musical talent. As for his violin playing, hardly ever in my life have I come across such early highly promising development. But by the mid ‘30’s when Huberman’s talent had given way to his genius, when his interpreting originality if that’s not to contradictory a concept, had left all conventionality far behind, he to so much on the nerves of Carl Flesh, the greatest violin teacher of our time whose Memoirs otherwise a model of Catholic objectivity, that he summed up the artist with these irritated words. “Huberman cannot be placed in any school or line of development. In the history of violin playing he will survive as the most remarkable representative of unbridled individualism, a fascinating outsider.”

And so one can go on talking but the proof of Huberman’s other-worldliness lies in his performances. Before we actually hear the Beethoven and the Lalo however, I want to illustrate, not from Huberman’s own performances, but from a distinguished virtuoso performance of our own time which I shall keep anonymous. For what I want to do is simply this. Before we actually hear Huberman I want to remind listeners of a few passages of the way we have come to remember them, the way they are played by one of the greatest fiddlers of our own day. There’s no need to play of Huberman against him, this would be unnecessary as well as undignified and that’s why I am keeping his name secret. We’ll just play the Huberman records afterwards when it will be realised, I think, that and how a genius lives in a different world from that inhabited by the intensist talents.

First the Beethoven concerto, the problem of the soloist’s opening, its phrasing …


The way from the first movements cadenza to the end …


In the Rondo the soloists entry as he opens the bridge passage …


And the central episode …


And now for Huberman’s interpretation recorded in the early ‘30’s.

<Huberman’s Beethoven concerto follows>

The Beethoven concerto then shows perhaps more of the saint than of the gypsy. When we come to the Symphonie Espagnole it’s the other way around, the gypsy predominates. The Beethoven was a work of genius, the Lalo isn’t. The fact that it does seem one when Huberman plays it with the freedom of musical necessity entitles one perhaps to call him a genius despite the fact that he was a mere performer. But then, was he mere?


Performer of genius (The Listener, 3 March, 1983)

The virtuosity and the interpretative insight of Bronislaw Huberman (1882-1947) can be heard on Radio 3 on Sunday at 10.55pm.

What is the history of music, without the history of performance? And what is performance, what is art itself, without the artist who is unlike any other artist? It's no more than craft putting one over-respectable charlatanism in our own, in-secure age, which suspects the Individualistic performer, and for which the history of performance simply means three stories: how they used to play, how we play, and how it ought to be played, the last two being too identical for comfort. Now, while informed answers to these three questions can tell us a great deal about the craft's history, the art of performance, like the art of composition itself, stands or falls by the individual artist.

Owing to the gramophone and, generally, music's ever-widening mass communication, a vast proportion of our performing civilisation suffers from arrested development-from an adolescent, pre-individualistic dependence on a teaching agency, on how It ought to be played, on' ideal', 'definitive' performances (which, if on post-78 disc, probably never existed in the first place), on broadly accepted standards of performance': in the most distinguished performing circles, ‘artistic standards’ are on everybody's lips, and 'good' performance has become standardised - even though in art as opposed to craft: in the concert hall as opposed to the music-schoolroom, standards and their measurements simply do not apply.

In the string-playing world, standards of proficiency, and hence of mediocrity, have risen impressively, but the leading violin virtuoso of today is not likely to inhabit the other-worldly world of a Bronislaw Huberman who, half gipsy and half saint, brought Brahms to tears when, at the age of 12, he played the composer his concerto; impulsively, Brahms promised him a 'Rhapsody for violin and orchestra', but died before he could write' it.

Nowadays, we don't hear of such creative incidents. But then, Huberman’s sheer range of expression was immeasurably wider than is, contrary to what official violin pedagogy tells us, the contemporary virtuoso’s: he has to rely on his left hand’s all-concealing, standardised sempre vibrato, whereas the varieties of tone production and tone modulation of which Huberman’s right hand was capable enabled him, when the spirit took him, to enter with a vibrato-less, utterly dematerialised second subject at the end of the Beethoven Concerto’s first-movement cadenza, which (damn the metaphor, for it actually happened) took your breath away.

With this passionate anti-routineer, there was no phrasing without the most incisive characterisation. It will take you at least 16-20 bars to identify your favourite violin virtuoso; whereas a bar or two of Huberman suffices for the purpose: it just couldn’t be anybody else. He was at his happiest, his most possessed (yes, by the devil, too), when he made music with an equally weighty, inventive, intense, clear, outspoken mind: with Furtwängler, he gave unforgettably different performances of the same work – each interpreter consistently improvising, and smiling at the other as one spontaneous inspiration after another resulted in harmonious joint improvisation. It was, on more than one occasion, as if Beethoven himself simultaneously played and conducted his own concerto.

Needless to add, it wasn’t always like that. With Schnabel in Vienna in the early Thirties, Huberman gave a complete Beethoven cycle which, as a collaboration, did not survive its first rehearsal, whereafter these great artists ceased to be on speaking terms. They proceeded to present their recitals un-rehearsed, and I seem to remember the mortal struggle ending in a last-minute draw, with one of them equalising in the finale of the ‘Kreutzer’.

The standardisation of performance has reached its technical apex, and its musical nadir, in the virtuoso dimension, where one neo-Paganini’s ricochet is indistinguishable from another’s. In fact, owing to the modern separation between music and technique, even between study and exercise, which has turned all-consuming practice into a ‘necessary evil’ (Carl Flesch), individual virtuosity is virtually extinct. Huberman’s concertante brilliance, on the other hand, was dominated, indeed created, by his inventiveness: it would be a grave mistake to treat Sunday’s programme as an entertaining collection of titbits, a roll-call of encores.

These pieces certainly were among his encores, but the slighter the music, the more creativity Huberman put into its performance, which thus became the crucial tail-end of composition, with the result that a Mazurka by Zarzycki produced, for the duration of its interpretation, a receptive reaction normally reserved for, say, a dance movement by the late Beethoven. As for Chopin’s not so slight C sharp minor Waltz – when, in my early teens, I first heard Huberman play his arrangement of it, I could not resist the paradoxical impression that this was by far the most authentic interpretation of the work I’d ever come across: every liberty he took made strict, unprecedented sense, and the violin was used to define and clarify pianistic intentions.

Brahms’s A flat Waltz I heard at the time too, and the composer’s response to the 12-year-old Huberman’s Brahms produced my confident fantasy about what his reaction to the 50-year-old Huberman’s Brahms would have been. The self-taught violinist’s eventual teacher was Brahms’s close friend – Joseph Joachim, who told Huberman one clear-eared day: ‘That’s it. I can’t teach you any more.’ Joachim had encountered a synthesis of insight and inspiration of which ‘genius’ seems a sober, realistic description.


The Gramophone Record

The unprecedented advantages of the gramophone record need not be listed. Every musician and music lover is aware that with its help, he can hear things he couldn't hear otherwise, either because the performers in question are dead, or because of the difficulties in the way of performing a particular work, not to speak of the difficulties which are often in the way of listening to a performance.

The anti-musical influence and effect of this revolutionary invention, however, have never yet been assessed with the necessary precision. To begin with, a gramophone record is, as such, a means towards unmusical listening, for the musical truth is that a substantial performance is unrepeatable; as soon as repeatability arises, the communication which a performance is supposed to be is, at least partly, transmuted to the hypnotic effect which music tends to have on unmusical people. Performance, especially great performance, is the improvisatory tail-end of composition, and improvisation can't be repeated, however hard quite a few performers of our age may try.

If this were not the case, there simply would be no such thing as a great performance; an adequate performance would be the best performance we could possibly hear. Invariably, we are conscious, in a great performance, of the performer's own creativity, which follows the score's instructions and yet produces meaningful contradictions of our own expectations. The central truth about all creativity is indeed the meaningful contradiction of the recipient's expectations, which the creator arouses before he contradicts them. The gramophone record's repeatability has had a disastrous and well-definable effect not only on the sheer act of listening, but also on musical education and, thence, on performance itself.

Let me explain. Years ago, when it was my duty to attend BBC auditions, I used to have bets with my fellow auditioners - bets about the gramophone records which, I said, the performer we heard possessed. You cannot imagine how often I won my bets - but to my mind, my task was easy: on countless occasions, one heard, not individual performances, but imitations, often sheer copies, of well-known performances by justly or unjustly leading artists. It was only when we heard an imitation of an imitation that I occasionally lost my bet.

Together with our systems of musical education, the gramophone record has been responsible, not merely for the standardisation of musical performance which replaces meaningful contradictions of our expectations with their total fulfillment and, thus, with pure boredom, but for the yet more universal arrested development of our musical youth: young performers continue to find models amongst the recorded performances of their heroes, instead of developing an individual, independent musical conscience and, thus, their own individualistic interpretations.

The truth of what I am saying can, as it were, be proved experimentally. Readers old enough to remember performances of half a century ago, or even earlier interpretations, will undoubtedly recall that so far as leading artists were concerned, and leading ensembles such as string quartets too, there was not the remotest difficulty in identifying them after a bar or two; younger readers can test the validity of my statement with the help of gramophone records. Nowadays, however, in this age of the standard ("good") performance, there are very few leading artists who can be recognised any earlier than after they have played at least half a movement - and more likely than not, our means of identification will be technical or, more rarely, musical mannerisms of the (mis)leading artists concerned.

If we think of today's leading violin virtuosos and conductors, for instance, the only two who are, literally, identifiable immediately are Ida Haendel and Celibidache - and where they appear together, as in a gramophone record of Brahms' fiddle Concerto, the maximal period of recognition can be reduced to a half-bar. Let us not forget that these two grown-up, truly leading artists grew up at a cultural stage when the noxious influence of the gramophone record wasn't anywhere near its current climax.

A total aesthetic illusion which the gramophone record has produced is the concept of a "definitive performance": in view of its distance from artistic reality, one might justly describe it as a delusion. At the present stage of my demonstration, it is hardly necessary to prove its taintless idiocy. At the same time, it should not be thought that we are anywhere near the end of our description of the gramophone record's anti-musicality. At least two major gramophonic disasters have to be thrown into relief if these reflections are not to be considered gravely incomplete.

One of them returns us to the area of education - though this time, it is self-education which is primarily involved. Our time's young person gets to know his music (if at all) by listening to gramophone records. In the past, however, a musical youth played his Beethoven symphonies in versions for piano duet or two pianos: there is, of course, no comparison between the enriching experience of playing something oneself and one's passive submission to the, admittedly, real texture of a work. Though I did have a gramophone as a child, I was sane enough to get to know my Matthew and John Passions, or my Mozart operas, by way of instant violin-and-piano arrangements which my father and I improvised for the purpose. The delay in hearing orchestrations proved a downright advantage: the child's curiosity made him all the more receptive.

Disaster number two is the constant assault on our ears, whether in the form of background or foreground music, which gramophone record and tape have made possible, and which has had a devastating effect on both the quality of our listening and our powers of musical concentration. In my teaching capacities, I am in a position to compare the two as they manifest themselves today with their manifestations in my childhood - even amongst outstanding musicalities and equally pronounced instrumental talents. The results of these comparisons make one fear for the future of music as an experience which is as overpowering as it is exclusive: few are the individuals nowadays who, when they play, or listen to music, are incapable of any extra-musical happening in their minds.


Technique and musicianship
('Music & Musicians' magazine, May, 1985)

I have devoted a lifetime to coaching string quartets at the highest level, which meant helping them to be born and to grow up. Since my retirement from the BBC, however, my institutional teaching has meant that I had to coach them at a slightly lower level, too, at any rate in terms of maturity. Thus, it is only in the last few years that I have become aware of the musically murderous isolation of technique, the educational separation of technique from musicality which has the most disastrous effect on our growing instrumentalists.

The present essay will confine itself to a single technical element – fingering. So far as fingerings on the piano are concerned, I am profoundly obliged to my pianistic colleague at the Yehudi Menuhin School, Simon Nicholls, himself an outstanding musician, for the information about the great composers’ piano-teaching with which he has provided me. Yes, the great composers taught the piano, although in classical times, when they played the violin and viola equally well, they did not teach the violin.

Why not? On the one hand, the piano itself is capable of producing texturally complete works, while on the other, the keyboard seems to throw up fingering problems which do not exist for the string player. Every string player feels secretly that the piano is an unmusical instrument, at best a precussion instrument, which has to be turned musical in order to serve musical purposes. Beethoven, for instance, a teacher in the C.P.E. Bach tradition, taught Czerny legato, “which he commanded himself in such an incomparable way and which at that time all other pianists thought was impossible on the piano” (Czerny). He also taught him a “then unknown” position of the hands and fingers and the use of the thumb.

On a string instrument, a newcomer can produce Beethoven’s keyboard legato, although fingering will have an influence on it, as well as, at the most primitive level, on the inclusion or exclusion of a glissando. What horrified me when I started my institutional quartet-coaching was many a student’s request for a fingering: I had spent decades in the naïve belief that every musical student thought up his own fingering, since he alone would know which fingering best served his phrasing intentions.

On the string instrument, however, the fingers are virtually treated alike – though one would, of course, avoid a trill with the weakest fourth finger. But even to this rule there are exceptions. Bronislaw Huberman, for example, used to go out of his way to enable himself to trill with his fourth finger, which he held absolutely stiff, producing the fastest trill I have ever heard in my life. Chopin treated his hands like Huberman’s: “Unlike his contemporaries, he believed that every finger had different attributes and that these must be developed to the full” (Zamoyski). The author derived these observations from Chopin’s notes for a piano method, which were published in Cortot’s Aspects de Chopin.

Bülow, on the other hand, a pupil of Liszt and a disciple of Brahms, submits: “That fingering is the best which allows the player, without mechanical preparation or previous mental effort, to transpose the same piece into any desired key: Beethoven’s Op. 57, for example, must be playable as comfortably in F sharp minor as in F minor by a modern virtuoso of genuine calibre” (introduction to the Cramer studies). Simon Nicholls ventures the assumption that Bülow was thinking “of Brahms’ legendary instant transposition of Beethoven’s Op 30, No. 3 into C sharp minor in 1853” – a guess which, to me, seems jolly realistic, since without it, we are left to wonder why Bülow didn’t recommend the musically most suitable fingering as “the best”.

A useful stage to switch to string fingering, this, since it would be virtually impossible to implement Bülow’s instruction on a fiddle, even though fingerings of transpositions can, on the violin, parallel the original fingering far more closely than they would, I imagine, on the piano, if the most musical fingerings were chosen for a transposition. Altogether, however, the musicality or unmusicality of a given fingering is far more evident on the violin than on the piano, since in certain circumstances, one’s fingering on the violin will affect the colour of the line: one has to think whether one wishes two successive notes to have the same colour or contrasting colours before one decides whether one wants to play them on the same string or not.

I have even come across students who will play a harmonic for purely practical reasons of convenience, because it is ready to hand, without being struck by the exceptional colour of the harmonic in its environment, and without, of course, having musically intended this colourific contrast. Likewise, the glissandos which are produced by changes of position on one and the same string are treated by many a student as an unalterable fact, once has decided, for whatever reason, to play the line in question on one and the same string.

It has taken me quite some time to convince a given student of the fundamental musical importance of fingering, though there is an area where practicality and musicality overlap: a quick run, for instance, cannot be played with a fingering that produces technical obstacles – one reason, this, why Bülow’s demand lacks musical weight.

If the youthful reader, after having perused the present article, remembers nothing but the all-pervasive musical import at the root of his choice of fingering, I shall be unreservedly happy. So far as harmonics chosen for the purpose of convenience are concerned, I have even heard outstanding virtuosos fall into this trap, especially (to chose just one example) in the theme of the slow movement from the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto, where, in the further course of the movement, repetition of the selfsame, illogical fingering produces predictable unmusicality: the worst experience a musical listener can have. For there is a pseudo-overlap of the areas of practicality and musicality too – where the player in question talks himself into the musicality of the fingering he has chosen for convenience’s sake: the harmonic in the theme of the aforementioned slow movement is a blatant example.


Performing Greatness (i)
('Music & Musicians' magazine, November, 1985)

FROM our recent discussion about comparisons, the need for a well-substantiated definition of greatness amongst performers would seem naturally to emerge. If we carefully go into each of its criteria, the task can’t be too difficult, despite the fact that there probably is more unanimity of opinion about great composers than about great performers. The reader will kindly select a great performer, and see whether our criteria apply to him. If they do, all will be well; if they don’t , I invite him to consider whether he has chosen wisely, or, perhaps, rashly.

A searching understanding of the music the great performer is playing, is of course, a conditio sine qua non, but the trouble has already started: what, precisely, do we mean by a searching understanding? In the first place, we mean comprehension of the way the composer wishes his music to be heard. This condition includes not only consistent phrasings, but also an ability to chacterize logically – in other words, to find the right tempo, or perhaps we should say, a right tempo, since there isn’t a single piece of music in our Western tradition which requires a single right tempo.

Tempo is a function of structure and hence, in performance, a function of phrasing. This consideration leads us to the next criterion. Performance being the tail-end of composition, a great performer will have to have a rich fund of invention, so that his or her phrasings are immediately recognizable as his or hers; there is no great performer whose creativity does not powerfully contribute to his interpretations. It will at once be realized that a right tempo will be his or hers and nobody else’s, for a recognizable interpreter’s personality will always depend on his or her method of characterization – not only of the music he or she is playing, but also of his or her mode of expression, in which, amongst the truly great, invention will play an intensive part.

There is no great performer, moreover, whose technique is not totally musical – so much so that one has the feeling of discomfort if one describes it as mere technique: even in the most fantastic virtuoso achievement, the predominant experience on the part of the listener will always be the music in the first place, again so much so that one remembers many a great performer playing a piece of virtuosic rubbish which, in his hands, sounded like late Beethoven, from which it follows that the shallower the music, the more the great performer’s creativity has to intervene.

The total musicalizaiton of technique will perhaps be better understood if the reader will kindly remember the typical small performance with which he is all too often confronted. None of us is without the experience of an interruption of phrasing for the purpose of a bit of virtuoso exhibitionism. We all remember, say, one of those small-minded string virtuosos who, when, for instance, an impressive spiccato passage is in sight, perform it like a spiccato exercise, and resume their phrasings thereafter; a particularly painful experience, this, if the spiccato passage in question happens to be a great composer’s – whereas all that’s happened is the player saying to us, ‘listen to my spiccato!’, and the ensuing spiccato study on top of it (though it must be remembered that if a great performer had played a genuine spiccato study, he would have made it sound, for the duration of the experience, like late Beethoven too).

Everybody will agree with my next criterion: a great performer invariably discloses hidden meanings, even in music which we think we know inside out. After a great performance, that is to say, we inevitably find that what we thought we knew inside out sounded like a new work. In other words, the great performer’s understanding of the work he or she is playing goes so deep that it discovers meanings which had not, until that performance, been discovered by anybody. If those meanings are partly the result of his own invention, so much the better, so long as they don’t remotely contradict the composer’s creative intentions: the great performer’s creativity does not contradict, but complements – even in the case of a piece of virtuoso rubbish, except that in such a piece, the main compositorial contribution will not be the composer’s, but the player’s or singer’s.

A great performance is one to whose persuasion we submit without the slightest resistance: the great performer has the power to convince us without our feeling in doubt about anything he does, however unconventional it may be. Let us not forget that any sign of conventionality reduces the stature of a performance; again we understand this point better if we remember its negative counterpart – the standardized performance which proportionately, is utterly predictable, so that we needn’t really hear it – all great art is a meaningful contradiction of our expectations. In other words, when we hear a great performance, there is no important juncture at which a performer lives down to our expectations: it should readily follow from the foregoing that at every such juncture, we hear something which, though it does not meet our expectations, immediately supplies the answer to our question, ‘Why not?’

From our list of criteria of great performances of great performers, it will easily be seen that we have not yet formulated the most important criterion – an all-pervassive originality of mind on the part of the performer. Hardly any of our criteria would survive without it, but the fact that it is needed has to be expressly stated. Individuality is impossible without originality, though mere individuality does not, of course, produce a great performer. It certainly produces one worth listening to, if, that is, his or her musicality and musicianship are as intense as that mere individuality.

A performance whose insight lives up to its intense originality is ineluctably great. But without our list of criteria, we would not know what, precisely, we mean by insight and originality.


Letter to Huberman (12 December 1936)

The evening of your London Concert, 12.12.1936

I have just arrived home after your concert and I have to write to you. I am only 16 years old. I am writing this only so that you don’t regard this letter as too important; but I expect you won’t do that anyway. I just want to tell you how greatly I revere you and admire your musical powers. You probably receive many letters such as this, perhaps this one will never get into your hands, but no matter – I shall feel much easier in my mind once I have written this letter. I have been in London for only a short time, completely starved of music, and today I was at your concert. I am sure you were not in the same frame of mind as in the Vienna Musikvereinsaal (I believe it is a frightful presumption on my part to say this), but you were ‘The Huberman’ and this is something so enormous that somehow one can’t really express it in words. One is conscious of the whole of your soul being put into your playing – your antagonists don’t hear this. you are someone so inconceivably eminent, I am very happy to be alive at the same time as you and to be able to listen to you. In my Viennese home I possess your recording of the Bach A minor concerto, and whenever I hear the following passages in which your playing is out of this world, a shiver runs down my spine:

In the first movement

and so on

In the third movement:

and so on

In tonight’s programme, there were two works which I did not particularly like, perhaps I am still too young for them; 1. The Szymanowski, 2. One of your encores which starts as if you were tuning your instrument. But the remainder of the programme! Many, many thanks for all the past evenings and equally for those still to come!!!

With my deepest admiration,
Hans Keller, Vienna.

back to criticism >