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date: 19 October 2019

Keal, Minnafree

  • Alex May

Keal, Minna (1909–1999), composer, was born Minnie Nerenstein on 22 March 1909 at 81 Wentworth Street, Spitalfields, east London, into a Yiddish-speaking family from Grodno, Russian Poland, the eldest daughter of Jacob Nerenstein (d. 1926), a Jewish prayer-book publisher and seller, and his wife, Fanny. Though none of her family had any formal musical training, her mother sang Hebrew folksongs and her uncle Leibel was an accomplished self-taught violinist; Minnie herself was much influenced by the singing of the cantors at her local synagogue. She began composing her own music at the age of twelve, later describing her early works as 'English with a Jewish overlay' ( She was educated at Commercial Street School and Clapton county school, Hackney, before entering the Royal Academy of Music (1928). During her year there she studied composition under William Alwyn and changed her name to Minna. Several of her works were performed at academy concerts and in the East End, at Whitechapel Gallery and the People's Palace.

From the time of her father's death in 1926, Minnie Nerenstein had helped her mother run the family business, dividing her time between school or the academy and work behind the counter. As the business expanded her mother continued to support her musical ambitions, but other relatives accused her of letting her mother work long hours while she mainly 'scribbled notes'. Eventually she left the academy. 'I figured that if I'd been a genius, everyone would have insisted that I carry on, but the only person who did was William Alwyn' (Daily Telegraph, 1 Dec 1999). She married Barnett Samuel (1906–1971), a lawyer, the son of Jacob Samuel, a draper, on 28 July 1931, though she later said that 'In my heart of hearts I knew it wasn't going to work'; they had one son, Raphael Elkan Samuel (1934–1996), historian. Active in left-wing causes, including bringing refugee children to England, Minna renounced Judaism and converted to Stalinism, joining the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) in 1939. In 1941 she left her husband (who disliked her political activities; they divorced in 1946) and moved with her son and piano to Slough, where she worked in a factory making parts for Spitfires and was, as she later put it, 'as political as could be' (The Times, 15 Nov 1999). After the war she returned to London and worked as a secretary at the Daily Worker and then in various mundane clerical jobs. From 1953 she lived with William Bernard (Bill) Keal (d. 1995), a fellow communist who had worked at the same factory in wartime, and whom (now also divorced, and working as a script writer) she had met again through the Workers' Musical Association. They married on 14 February 1959. They had by then left the CPGB over the Soviet invasion of Hungary: it was, Minna later said, 'shattering … far worse than giving up Judaism' (Daily Telegraph, 1 Dec 1999).

After retiring in 1969 Minna Keal attended the Guildhall School of Music, took her LRAM diploma (qualifying her as a music teacher), and gave piano lessons. Encouraged by the composer Justin Connolly (who had come to her house to examine one of her pupils, and had been much impressed by the early compositions which she had pulled from a cupboard to show him) she resumed composing, and studied first under Connolly himself and then under Oliver Knussen. Her earlier compositions had been romantic and melodic, but her later works were uncompromisingly modernist, influenced by her study of Bartók, Shostakovitch, and Schoenberg. A Lament (1978) and a wind quintet (1980) were followed by her symphony (1987), five years in the making, which was, she said, 'about the turmoil of human existence and the spiritual search for serenity and permanence' (The Independent, 16 Nov 1999). It was performed at the BBC Proms in 1989, conducted by Knussen in the same concert as the première of John Tavener's The protecting veil, and received a standing ovation. Her Cantillation (1988) for violin and orchestra, drawing inspiration from the chanting she had heard in synagogues as a girl, was first performed in 1991, by Odaline de la Martinez and the European Women's Orchestra. Another major work, her cello concerto (1994), in three continuous movements, was premièred at the Snape Proms, Aldeburgh, in 1994. Various shorter pieces followed. In March 1999 Minna Keal was honoured with a ninetieth birthday concert at the Royal Academy of Music. Two CDs of her music were issued in her lifetime. She died at her home, Acres Plough, Shootacre Lane, Princes Risborough, Buckinghamshire, on 14 November 1999, having been predeceased by both her husband and her son.


  • The Times (15 Nov 1999)
  • The Independent (16 Nov 1999)
  • Daily Telegraph (1 Dec 1999)
  • b. cert.
  • m. certs.
  • d. cert.



  • Channel 4, documentary


  • photograph, 1984, repro. in Daily Telegraph
  • photograph, 1989, repro. in The Times
  • photograph, 1998, repro. in The Independent