Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Music History Monday: Myra Hess

Myra Hess (1890-1965)
Myra Hess (1890-1965)

On February 25, 1890 – 129 years ago today – the pianist Julia Myra Hess was born in Hampstead in North West London.

In a “Dr. Bob Prescribes” post, I rather energetically took the pianist Keith Jarrett to task for behaving like a brat – for haranguing and cursing at his audiences and often just walking off the stage in mid-set – if, heaven forbid, an audience member should have the unmitigated gall to cough during one of his performances.

Expectorate in my presence?! The nerve! 

In the course of that “Dr. Bob Prescribes” post, I referenced the pianist Myra Hess, who produced and performed in concerts in London for the duration of World War Two, on occasion performing during bombing raids. Her courage mirrored the indomitable spirit of the British people during the second world war. Coughing? Coughing? Dame Julia Myra Hess, CBE (Commander of the British Empire, 1936), DBE (Dame of the British Empire, 1941) was not just a great artist but a certifiable hero in the truest sense of the word. Coughing? Mr. Jarrett, you couldn’t hold Ms. Hess’ panties. 

(For our information, Hess herself had a tangential connection to American jazz: in the 1920s, she numbered among her piano students Elizabeth Ivy Brubeck, the mother of Dave Brubeck.)

Here then, on the occasion of her 129th birthday, let us honor Myra Hess and in doing so, let us honor the British people in what was, truly, their “Finest Hour.”

The youngest of four children, Hess was born and raised in a strict Orthodox Jewish household. She never bought in to the restrictive traditions of Orthodox practice (we are told, for example, that she was constantly fighting with her parents about not being allowed to ride her bicycle on the sabbath!). Though she was a serious and hardworking student and musician, she developed an outrageous sense of humor to go along with her rebellious streak. Her friends referred to her as being “Rabelasian”: meaning “relating to or characteristic of Rabelais or his works” (Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary). What that means is that she took great pleasure in being vulgar, funny, raunchy, and crude; that she was a relentless enemy of hypocrisy and utterly immovable in matters of truth; and that she went out of her way to tweak the social mores of her time. (For example, she delighted in smoking in public at a time when nice young Jewish girls and older female concert artists did not do so!)

British pianist Myra Hess at piano with Cigarette in Mouth

Myra Hess was a great pianist. She began her piano lessons at five and quickly climbed the musical education ladder in London. At seven, she entered the Trinity College of Music and became the youngest student to receive a Trinity College Certificate. From there it was off to the Guildhall School of Music and finally, at the age of 12, admittance to the Royal College of Music. 

Hess made her formal debut in 1907 at the age of 17, when she played Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto and Saint-Saëns’s Fourth Piano Concerto with the New Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Thomas Beecham; she performed Chopin’s F-sharp minor Nocturne and A minor Etude op. 25 no. 11 as encores.

Queen’s Hall in 1912
Queen’s Hall in 1912

(The venue for that concert was Queen’s Hall, at the time, London’s most prestigious concert hall. It opened in 1893 and it died a martyr’s death on the night of May 10, 1941 during the Blitz, the German terror bombing of Britain. In the same massive air raid that destroyed the chamber of the House of Commons and badly damaged the British Museum and Westminster Abbey, a single incendiary bomb hit Queen’s Hall. That was all it took, and by the morning the building was a smoking heap of rubble. The London Philharmonic, which had performed a concert of music by Edward Elgar on the previous afternoon lost thousands and thousands of dollars’ worth of instruments. 

The surviving bust of Sir Henry Wood
The surviving bust of Sir Henry Wood (1869-1944)

The only object to survive intact was a bronze bust of Sir Henry Wood, the English conductor best known as the director of the “Proms”, London’s annual series of “promenade concerts.” They are so-called because they were originally performed outdoors in London’s pleasure gardens as audience members strolled – promenaded – about while listening to the music.)

Myra Hess’ international career took off following her debut at Queen’s Hall. In 1908 she played the first of what would eventually number 90 concerts with the Proms, playing Liszt’s E-flat Major Piano Concerto under the baton of Sir Henry Wood (he of the surviving bust fame). By 1920 she was performing nearly 100 concerts a year in Britain and Europe. She made her American concert debut in 1922 to huge acclaim and remained a favorite of American audiences until the end of her life in 1965.

By the 1930s, Hess had come to be considered a national treasure, and in 1936 she was designated a “CBE”: a “Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire.”

And then came the second world war.

It began in Europe on September 1, 1939, when Nazi Germany invaded Poland. The United Kingdom declared war on Germany on September 3. 

The UK was vulnerable to attack from the air, and nowhere more so than its huge, sprawling capitol of London. A blackout immediately went into effect and London went dark at night. At the same time, the city’s theaters, concert halls, movie houses, and museums were closed: the Home Office did not want masses of people gathering in relatively small spaces that could be targeted and bombed. The closings created what Kenneth Clark, the Director of the National Gallery, called a “cultural blackout.”

Kenneth Clark
Kenneth Clark (1903-1983)

The sprawling National Gallery on Trafalgar Square had begun removing its paintings even before war was declared. Shipments of art left London every day for safekeeping in secret locations in Gloucestershire and Wales. By mid-September 1939, the museum was empty. The museum director Kenneth Clark remembered:

“Every picture had been taken away, but the frames remained and multiplied the general emptiness with a series of smaller emptinesses. When I returned to the Gallery, after the all-absorbing task of evacuation was safely over, I walked round those large, dirty, and (as it turned out) ill-proportioned rooms, in deep depression.”

Enter Myra Hess. In late September of 1939, she met with Clark. She shared Clark’s belief that: 

“the arts played a powerful spiritual role in the health of the nation at the best of times – and would play an even greater role now during wartime.”

Hess proposed that lunchtime concerts be held at the now empty National Gallery and Clark, thrilled with her idea, took it a step further and suggested daily concerts.

London’s National Gallery as seen from Trafalgar Square
London’s National Gallery as seen from Trafalgar Square

And so was born one of the greatest morale boosters of all time. Myra Hess had her hands full: she had to put together a production organization pretty much overnight; she had to raise operating funds; line up performers and programs; prepare the venue (build a stage; install seats; set up lights; create a box office; etc.); and publicize the concerts. For his part, Kenneth Clarke convinced the Gallery’s trustees to go along with the project and he had to persuade the Home Office and Ministry of Works to grant the concerts dispensation from the ban on public gatherings. It was decided that concerts would take place Monday through Friday at 1 pm and on Tuesdays and Thursdays at 5 pm as well. The price of a ticket was set a one shilling (about $4.75 today) for a 1pm concert and two shillings for a 5 pm concert. 

The first concert took place on Tuesday, October 10, 1939. No one knew what to expect. Myra Hess, fearing a flop, decided to give the first concert herself, to save any other musicians the embarrassment of an audience of only 40 or 50 people. She needn’t have been concerned. By 12:20 the line for the concert snaked down the gallery stairs, along one side of Trafalgar Square, and then around the corner. Over 1000 attendees heard Hess play that first concert, with many hundreds more turned away (there were only 500 chairs at that first performance, so half of the audience had to stand, sit on the floor, or lean against a wall).

Myra Hess performing at the National Gallery
Myra Hess performing at the National Gallery

Kenneth Clark later wrote:

“What sort of people were these who felt more hungry for music than for their lunches? All sorts. Young and old, smart and shabby, Tommies in uniform with their tin hats strapped on, old ladies with ear trumpets, music students, civil servants, office boys, busy public men, all sorts had come.”

The extraordinary symbolic value of these concerts quickly became apparent, and members of the Royal Family began to regularly attend as well, sitting with members of the public. In 1945, Queen Elizabeth (the wife of George VI and mother of Queen Elizabeth II) remembered her attendance at the concerts as being among the happiest hours she had known during the war.

When the Blitz began the concerts were moved into the cramped basement of the National Gallery, where audiences and musicians broiled in the summer and froze in the winter (during the winter Myra Hess had stoves installed on stage and performed wearing a fur coat).

Bomb damage to the National Gallery
Bomb damage to the National Gallery

During the course of the Blitz, the city of London was bombed 71 times between September 1940 and May 1941, during which the National Gallery was hit by bombs nine times. The third hit took place at 1:30 pm on October 23, 1940, during the performance of a Beethoven string quartet by the Stratton String Quartet. No one was injured, and according to ear-and-eye-witness accounts, the quartet continued without missing a beat.

Myra Hess’ now legendary lunchtime concerts continued, non-stop, for 6½ years, until April 10, 1946. In that time, 1698 concerts were performed for a total audience of 824,152 people. Hess herself performed in over 150 of those concerts. 

Myra Hess’ greatest years were still in front of her, as the 1950s marked the apogee of her pianism and her fame; that’s a story for another time. For now, let us celebrate the birthday of a British patriot, whose leadership, strategic imagination and courage made her as important to the home front as Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery and General Harold Alexander were on the battlefield. 

Happy birthday, Dame Hess!

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