Minna Keal was born Minnie Nerenstein on March 22nd 1909 in the stockroom of her parents' Hebrew publishing and book selling business in the East End of London within the sound of Bow bells: a "true Cockney" as she liked to say. She was the eldest daughter of Yiddish-speaking Fanny and Jacob Nerenstein, who were Russian-Jewish immigrants. Though her parents had no musical training, Minna had an Uncle Leibel who played the violin very well and she remembered experiencing a lot of music in the Nerenstein household, particularly her mother's singing of Hebrew folk songs. She was also deeply moved by the singing of the cantors at her local synagogue (an experience she later movingly translated into music in her Cantilations for Violin and Orchestra op4). As a baby she spoke only Yiddish but soon picked up English at the age of 3 when she first went to Commercial Street School. In 1910, she won a scholarship to the Clapton County Secondary School in Hackney, a very progressive school run by a Fabian Socialist. Minna chose music as one of her ten matriculation subjects. She had always enjoyed playing the piano and developed an interest in new music. At this stage of her life Beethoven was her idol. She began composing tunes at the age of 12 which she later described as "English with a Jewish overlay". The most successful of her childhood compositions was a hymn tune.
Her father died in 1926 whilst Minna was still a teenager and instead of going to University to study modern languages as she originally planned, she attended the Royal Academy of Music because it was more convenient for her to travel there via the Underground from her mother's business. She studied at the RAM from 1928 to 1929. Her piano teacher was Thomas Knott and she studied composition with William Alwyn (she must have been one of his very earliest pupils). In her very first lesson, Alwyn asked her to write a piece of piano music for him for the following week. The young Minna was so overwhelmed she got lost in the underground on the way home! Minna remembered Alwyn as a very good teacher and a fine composer who always achieved a good balance between strength and lyricism in his writing. Alwyn encouraged her at the time of her first serious compositions. The very first work she had performed at an Academy concert was a piano sonata (a work which merits revival if it matches the quality of her other RAM compositions). Later works performed at the Academy included a Fantasie in C minor for violin and piano, and a Ballade in F minor for viola and piano (which shows her admiration of Frank Bridge but is in no way derivative). It was much admired by the master of the viola, Lionel Tertis and it won her an Elizabeth Stokes bursary for composition in 1929. Other works performed at the RCM were Three Summer Sketches for piano and a deeply felt, richly Romantic "Fantasy" for string quartet.
Tragically, her very promising career as a composer came to an abrupt halt. She was pressurised by her family (though not her mother) to give up her musical studies and help her mother run the family business. Along with this pressure came guilt and, saddest of all, she felt at the time that she couldn't have been any good as a composer because no one came forward and implored her not to give it up! In fact her teacher William Alwyn did write to her, asking her not to abandon her studies but she made up her mind. Inwardly psychologically devastated at having to give up what she wanted to do most, she decided the best way to cope would be to cease composition altogether. So, after writing out the parts of her recently completed string quartet and consigning them to a cupboard, she left the Academy in May 1929 at the age of 20 and turned her back on composition for 46 years, despite her obvious talent. However, she continued to play the piano and in this way music continued to play an important part in her life.
Her considerable energies were absorbed by her demanding roles as a wife, mother and businesswoman. She married Barnet Samuel in 1931 and three years later had a son, Raphael Samuel (who became a distinguished social historian and a tutor at Ruskin College, Oxford). Minna began to take a keen interest in politics about the time of the Spanish Civil War and joined the Communist party in 1939. She felt their slogan "to each according to his needs" matched her own fierce sense of social justice. She was an implacable opponent of Oswald Moseley's Blackshirts, helping to rescue hundreds of children from Nazi Germany through a committee she formed with her husband. It was whilst working as a progress chaser at an aircraft factory in Slough during the Second World War that she met her second husband Bill Keal. They were both heavily involved in the Labour Movement, trying to raise money for the war effort. Her marriage to Barnett Samuel broke up in 1946 and she married Bill Keal, an engineer and poet, in 1959.
During the 1950s she had a number of routine clerical jobs, including secretarial work. For a while she was the Examinations Secretary for the Institute of Management Association in London. At one stage, she worked in the fur trade in Queen Street near the Guildhall School of Music. At this time she undertook piano lessons with Norman Anderson at the Guildhall and took her LRAM diploma, qualifying herself to be a piano teacher. She discovered Bartók and played his Sonatina at a Guildhall concert, winning a silver cup at the Bethnal Green Festival. She also grew to like Shostakovitch and Lutoslawski, feeling a natural affinity with Slavonic composers - indeed, she always felt there was a Slavonic tint to her music - its passionate insistence being quite unlike Western European music.
By the time of her retirement from a boring office job at the age of 60 in 1969 Minna and Bill had moved to Buckinghamshire. Minna began to give occasional piano lessons, never imagining that she would compose again. In 1973, one of her piano pupils had to be examined for his Grade 3 at her house and so the examiner came to visit. He was the rising composer Justin Connolly. After the exam had finished the two musicians discussed various subjects and Minna mentioned she had studied at the RCM. Connolly was particularly fascinated to know what sort of student music was performed at the College in the 1920s and asked to see some of Minna' compositions. He was so impressed that he convinced her to resume her composition, offering to help her. He became her ally, acting as a soundboard and mirror for her thoughts rather than as any kind of instructor. As a Christmas present, her son enrolled her as an official student of Justin Connolly, in 1975.
When she began writing Minna naturally resumed in the same style she had been using when she broke off at the end of the 1920s. She said that at the time she resumed composition in the mid-1970s, she saw herself as being in the "evening of her life" and began to write a piano piece entitled "Lament" in a suitably autumnal style which Justin Connolly described as being rather like Skryabin. Minna began to realise that she wanted to speak in a contemporary language in order to address a contemporary audience and asked Connolly to help her catch up with all the musical developments which she had occurred since she gave up writing music in the 1920s. She cited her biggest influences in her early compositions as being Debussy, Wagner, Bridge, Bruch and Joseph Akron's "Hebrew Melody"! Now she had to learn contemporary musical language from scratch! Her new idols were Bartók, Shostakovitch and Schoenberg, though she continued to admire Elgar, especially the Cello Concerto. Once she grew accustomed to composing in a modern style, she felt as if her life was beginning over again. She embraced her new mission in a typically wholehearted fashion - listening to recordings of new music, studying contemporary scores and attending modern music festivals (including the Musica Nova festival in Glasgow where her Wind Quintet op2 was premiered by Lontano in 1984). Minna Keal felt that a whole accumulation of experience came out in her writing when she resumed composition and for her, life became "rich and wonderful".
In a strange kind of poetic symmetry, just as the last work she completed before giving up her studies in 1929 had been a work for string quartet, so Minna's first official work she completed after resuming composition was her String Quartet opus one (1978). The quartet was taken up by the Society for the Promotion of New Music and formed the basis of a workshop and recording in 1979 and the Bingham String Quartet gave the work its public première later that year. The players were pleased to include this compact and expressive work in their repertoire on account of its passionate and rhythmically vital nature. Although it appears to be written in a totally different language from her Academy works, being atonal in form and occasionally dissonant, Minna's opus one shares with those early pieces an intense concentration and a driving desire to communicate. The composer intended the piece to juxtapose the turmoil of human life with the tranquillity to be found in Nature. These ideas took the form of the work's two main themes - a descending figure and a more expansive flowing melody but soon the work developed beyond these initial stimuli and became non-programmatic. It took her two years to complete this piece and it took her as long again to finish her next work, the Wind Quintet.
The five-movement Wind Quartet (1980) began as an experiment in composition. Minna constructed five different musical lines which later took on the distinctive colours of different woodwind instruments (flute, oboe, clarinet, horn and bassoon). These five sentences provide the bedrock upon which the rest of the work is constructed. The five-movement work was completed in January 1980.
After her Wind Quintet, she asked her teacher Justin Connolly what she should do next and he suggested an orchestral work. She began work on what she thought was going to be a five-movement Suite based on moods expressed in her husband's poems but in fact her third opus turned out to be a major Symphony (1987). Justin Connolly was abroad when she began writing the work and so she took the piece to fellow composer James Wood to consult him about a matter relating to the percussion. Wood suggested immediately that she should show her score to Oliver Knussen, who would be interested in seeing it. He was indeed impressed and became her teacher in 1982, giving the world premiere of the complete Symphony with the BBC Symphony Orchestra at the Proms in 1989. After conducting the work he commented, "you can't predict anything with a talent like that!" This powerful work took five years to write and when she was writing it she had no thought of its ever being performed. Indeed she thought that when she died perhaps her friends would club together and perform it!
When the Symphony's first three movements were first heard at a public rehearsal, Minna was moved to tears. This run-through, organised by the Society for the Promotion of New Music, occurred at St Johns, Smith Square when Adrian Leaper conducted the orchestra of the National Centre for Orchestral Studies. At the standing ovation that greeted that 1989 Proms performance of her Symphony, she felt as though her life had "burst around her like a thundercloud". During the rehearsals for this Proms performance, Béla Dekany, the leader of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, confessed to her that he couldn't believe this accomplished piece was her first orchestral work.
As a Symphony of the late 1980s Minna's work is indeed impressive in expressing the turmoil and stress of modern living. A lot of the work's material is derived from the opening eight-note tutti chord. A processional theme employing all 12 notes of the chromatic scale first heard in the lower strings is also significant. The second movement is a double scherzo which reaches a fearsome triple forte climax before it trails away. A sustained threnody follows, containing a series of finely controlled musical peaks. The Symphony gets stronger and more powerful as it progresses so that the Finale, the most substantial of the three movements, is the most effective of all, vigorously taking up and consolidating the musical argument of the three preceding movements.
After the Symphony, her next work was quite different - a lyrical, expressive 12-minute piece for violin solo and orchestra in one continuous expressive span called "Cantillation" (1988). There are no specific liturgical influences in her first opus numbers but as soon as she came to write for the violin, subconsciously the sound of the cantors at her synagogue came to her. When she sought a name for the work (she always gave her pieces titles after she had finished them) she chose to outwardly acknowledge that influence. She was anxious not to overdo the sounds of the cantors which she characterised as having a "pleading" quality about them which could spill over into maudlin sentimentality. There is no danger of that, however, and this moving and grippingly emotive mini-Violin concerto (replete with cadenza) emerges as one of Minna's most attractive works. In the first works she wrote after her forty-year silence there is a feeling of a composer flexing her newly found contemporary credentials, whereas in "Cantillation" and the subsequent Cello Concerto Minna Keal writes in a language which no longer draws attention to itself but which totally serves the composer's inspiration.
The Cello Concerto took six years to write and was completed in 1994. In preparing for the work, she took the unprecedented step (for her) of actually studied the scores of other examples: the Schumann, Elgar, Lutoslawski concerti and both Shostakovitch's contributions to the genre. She had no player in mind when she began to write the piece and at one stage never thought she would finish it. The concerto became her one and only commission when the Aldeburgh Foundation commissioned her to complete the work. As her thoughts turned to a suitable soloist, she remembered Alexander Baillie, whose playing had impressed her. This deeply moving work uses a 12-note row but very freely, thematic growth being always more important to her than dry academic techniques. Indeed, one is as likely to find octaves and fifths in her scores as 12-tone rows as she always used the most appropriate means at her disposal to arrive at her chosen effects. The Cello Concerto follows on from "Cantillation" in its occasionally overt Jewish influences which seem to manifest themselves most clearly in her string writing. The work is dedicated to her husband, who was seriously ill whilst she was writing it but who encouraged her to start it rather than a less demanding work despite all the effort she would have to put into it. The concerto was premiered by Alexander Baillie with the City of London Sinfonia conducted by Richard Hickox as part of the Port of Felixstowe Proms on the 26th of August 1994.
After the emotionally exhausting Cello Concerto, Minna turned to something on a smaller scale. Her Duettino op6 is a three and a half minute work for flute and clarinet. She wrote it out of a feeling of guilt at not being able to let the Saunders twins perform her Wind Quintet, having promised the première to Odine de la Martinez and Lontano. As an act of atonement, she wrote the Duettino for the Saunders twins who gave the world premiere in September 1996 at the Windsor Festival.
On completing the Duettino, she turned once again to a chamber work for strings - a string quintet with an extra cello (the same combination used by Schubert in his late masterpiece). She envisaged the work being about 12 minutes in length and possibly in one continuous flow with bridge passages between movements rather than breaks as she felt such pauses were an affectation which only gave audiences time to fidget! However, the recent tragedies in her life with the deaths of her son, her husband and both of her sisters in quick succession finally took their toll on her previously indomitable spirit and in many ways from this time until her death on 14th November 1999 it was only music which kept her going.
A meticulous and methodical composer, she used to enjoy scoring her works most of all, referring to having a full orchestra at her disposal as like being in an "Aladdin's Cave"! Although a work such as the Symphony sounds as though it was written at white heat, in fact it was the result of a laborious process, sometimes dragging out each note like a "refined torture" (as she put it). She stuck at her compositions "like a dog gnawing at a bone" and approached life with the same determined tenacity. Unlike those other keen activists in social issues, Michael Tippett and Alan Bush, she never let her beliefs overtly affect her works. There were no extra-musical programmes to her compositions, as she preferred to let her music speak for itself - she was an intuitive composer, not an analytical one.
She wanted, above all, to express the turmoil of living in the twentieth century: the joy, sadness, chaos and frustration which had been packed into her crowded and rich life. She was always concerned about humanity as a whole rather than just herself and threw herself totally into the fray, sparing herself nothing. Music, she felt, should lift listeners out of themselves onto a higher plane of existence. Though not a deeply religious person (she renounced Judaism when she joined the Communist party in the 1930s), she was very spiritual and perhaps most importantly, a trenchant humanist fighting for what she believed to be right. Displaying immense reserves of character, she admitted that she didn't feel deprived during her 46 years of silence because she convinced herself she wasn't that good. When her sister asked her why she didn't compose any more she retorted that composing was something you did "with all your powers or not at all", a maxim she extended to all her activities whether they were creative or not. She was always enthusiastic about performances of her works and tried to attend all of them. Minna always felt she had been lucky in her teachers and performers and whilst she was happy to play her pieces to those interested in hearing them, she would never play them for her own enjoyment.
Now that Minna Keal is no longer with us, let us hope some of the more sensational aspects of her musical life which cropped up in interviews with monotonous regularity might be allowed to recede into the background. In particular, the 46-year gap in composition and her Proms debut at the age of 80, whilst interesting facts in themselves are but part of an amazingly full and rich life which brought forth some very powerful compositions. Perhaps most offensively of all, many interviewers found it necessary to comment on her "diminutive stature" (I don't recall hearing such size-ist remarks being made about vertically-challenged male composers in interviews!). Also, by harping on the pensioner status of the woman behind such powerful works as the Symphony and the Cello Concerto commentators often ran the risk of reducing her to the level of a "Grandma Gubbins" figure which, for a woman of her keen intelligence and deep humanity must have been very hard to take. Minna's incredible strength of will and vitality of character are enshrined in a handful of fine and dynamic scores which need no extra-musical details to bolster their significance. It is imperative that the very interpreters who encouraged her creativity whilst she was alive should continue to programme her scores in the future. Minna's music deserves to be refreshed through new performances where it can stand up in its own right as fine music after the tedious myth making and freak show-like interest by the media have been long forgotten.
Minna Keal Discography
Cello Concerto (1988-94)
Ballade for Cello and Piano (1929)
Alexander Baillie cello
Martina Baillie piano
BBC Scottoish Orchestra conducted by Martyn Brabbins
String Quintet Op 2
Wind Quintet Op2
Stephen Bryant violin with BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Nicholas Cleobury
Lontano conducted by Odaline de la Martinez
Archaeus String Quartet
Interview (29th March 1999) 90th Birthday Concert Con Brio
Fantasy String Quartet (1929) 90th Birthday Concert Con Brio
String Quartet op1 (1979) 90th Birthday Concert Con Brio
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