Hans Keller (1919-1985)

Born to a Jewish family in Vienna, musicologist Hans Keller was arrested by the Nazis and forced to leave Austria following the Anschluss in 1938. He moved to Britain and established a successful career as a broadcaster, critic and writer, helping to promote under-valued composers such as Benjamin Britten, Edward Elgar and Arnold Schoenberg. He also wrote books and essays, wrote and translated dramas and librettos, taught composition and coached string quartets. Keller developed ‘Wordless Functional Analysis,’ a method of analysing music without verbal description, described by Keller as ‘at the centre of my life’s work.’

Keller grew up in the wealthy Döbling suburb of Vienna where he was taught the violin by Oscar Adler, who had previously mentored Schoenberg. Keller’s father was an architect and both parents were keen amateur musicians; their social circle included Franz Schmidt and Alma Mahler. In 1938 the Nazis annexed Austria and encouraged Austrian Jews to emigrate. Keller had obtained a visa to move to Britain and join his mother and sister (who had previously married an Englishman), but did not have the correct papers. After Kristallnacht in November, Keller was arrested by the Gestapo and, along with other Austrian Jews, was interned for six days with very little food or water, and told that he would be executed. Keller later said that while he was imprisoned, he kept himself motivated by thinking ‘if, by any remote chance, I should succeed in getting out of here, and in dying in a bed, I swear to myself that I’ll never again be in a bad mood, whatever the circumstances of my life or death.’

Keller was able to show his British visa and was released on the condition that he never reveal what he had witnessed as a prisoner. He did not realise at that time that a warrant had been released by another branch of the Gestapo for his arrest, as the Nazis (wrongly) believed that Keller’s father had money abroad. Whilst trying to obtain a passport to leave the country, his father passed away, leaving Keller as his heir, which made the situation more precarious. He decided to try to leave the country on an aeroplane, and a series of flukes and bureaucratic incompetencies enabled him to leave Vienna for England without a passport.

Keller settled in London with his mother and sister, but despite being classified as a ‘friendly enemy alien,’ was arrested in June 1940 and interned in Liverpool. He was later sent to the Isle of Man and imprisoned for nine months along with his uncle and several other musicians. He played in a string quartet with Oscar Adler, violist Karl Haas (who later founded the London Baroque Ensemble) and cellist Otto Hüttenbach; he also befriended composer Peter Gellhorn, who would later become conductor at the Royal Opera House, and Paul Hamburger, a pianist who commented that he had been reluctant to leave the Isle of Man, as he was imprisoned with ‘so many artists from my homeland.’ Keller was released in March 1941, in part thanks to the Committee for the Release of Interned Alien Musicians chaired by Ralph Vaughan Williams, who argued that to lock up Hitler’s enemies was to contradict what the Allied forces were fighting for.

After his release, Keller took his Licentiate in violin at the Royal Academy of Music, and worked as a freelance musician before writing for The Music Review and Music Survey, where he became co-editor. He joined the BBC in 1959 and occupied a number of senior positions such as the Chief Assistant of New Music, and also helped to form the European Broadcasting Union. As well as music, he was interested in psychology and psychoanalysis, publishing papers in psychological journals.

During the 1950s Keller developed an approach to musical analysis which he named ‘Wordless Functional Analysis’ (abbreviated – Keller was an avid football fan – to FA). His method argued that music was best understood through listening, rather than through the written word; he argued that the ‘philosophy’ of music had nothing to do with ‘verbal, conceptual thought.’ Keller’s scores present the themes from a piece of music (such as a Beethoven symphony or a Mozart quartet), in a rearrangement that can be played before or after that work. His relatively straightforward presentation of the key musical ideas may help the listener to further understand it from an analytical point of view. Keller’s scores do not necessitate an understanding of music theory, and have been described as ‘minor works of art in their own right.’

On 5 June 1961 Keller and fellow presenter Sarah Bradshaw famously broadcast the ‘composition’ Mobile for Tape and Percussion by fictional Polish composer Piotr Zak on a BBC Third Programme radio broadcast. The piece used a series of nonsensical noises, and was an experiment designed by Keller to demonstrate critics’ misunderstanding of contemporary music; it was largely unsuccessful, however, as critics unanimously criticised the piece leaving Keller’s point unproven.

Hans Keller married the German artist Milein Cosman, who illustrated some of his books and writings, including a series on Igor Stravinsky. Many composers dedicated works to Keller including Britten, Benjamin Frankel, David Matthews, Bayan Northcott, Buxton Orr and Josef Tal, amongst others. Keller received the ‘Special Award’ of the Composers’ Guild of Great Britain in 1979, as well as the Ehrenkreuz für Wissenschaft und Kunst, 1 Klasse (Cross of Honour for Arts and Sciences, First Class) from the President of Austria in September 1985, just weeks before his death from motor neurone disease aged 66. He wrote that the promise he had made to himself whilst imprisoned by the Gestapo in 1938, that he would ‘never again be in a bad mood,’ had stayed with him all of his life, ‘the result being a great elation about being alive.’

By Abaigh McKee


Donat, M. (1985) ‘Hans Keller 1919-85’ The Listener 14/11/1985, 23

Garnham, A. M. (2011) Hans Keller and Internment: the development of an emigré musician 1938–48 (London: Plumbago)

Keller, H. (1974) ‘Vienna 1938’ The Listener, 28/3/1974, 397

Keller, H. (1977) 1975 (1984 minus 9) (London: Dobson, 1977)

Weinberg, A. (1986) The Keller Instinct [Television documentary] Channel 4, first broadcast 23/2/1986

Wintle, C. (n. d.) ‘Keller, Hans Heinrich’ Oxford Dictionary of Biography (http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/58813; accessed 15/9/2016)

Wintle, C. (1986) ‘Hans Keller (1919-1985): An Introduction to His Life and Works’ Music Analysis Vol. 5, No. 2/3, 342-365