Born to an Orthodox Jewish family, Myra Hess began her musical studies at the age of five, attending Trinity College of Music, the Guildhall School of Music and the Royal Academy of Music in London. By the outbreak of the war, she was already a renowned pianist and had been signed to a seven-month tour of America and Australia due to start in November 1939. However, Hess took the risky decision to break her contract and return to London. Patrick Bade, a scholar of wartime music, has claimed that, ‘If one person could be deemed to represent the musical life of London during the war, it would have to be the pianist Myra Hess.’

On 16 September 1939 she wrote to the BBC to complain that, ‘Since the outbreak of the war, the whole world has been listening in to England, and the entire nation has been waiting in vain for programmes of good music befitting the dignity and seriousness of the present situation.’ On receiving no reply Hess took matters into her own hands and approached the director of the National Gallery, Sir Kenneth Clark, with a proposition: the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square, which had been emptied in case of a German air attack, could be used as a venue for a lunchtime concert series. Spurred on by Clark’s enthusiasm for her idea, Hess negotiated with the Home Office and Ministry of Works to surmount the ban on public gatherings that had been issued, and the first concert was planned for 10 October 1939.

Hess gave the first performance herself – ‘in case the whole thing [was] a flop’ – to an audience of 1,000 people. The enormous success of this concert led to a further 1,698 concerts in a series that ran throughout and beyond the end of the war. Composer Howard Ferguson acted as assistant to Myra in the organisation of these concerts, and calculated that over 1,500 musicians took part over the six years, including 13 orchestras and 15 choirs. Myra herself performed in 146 concerts, taking no fee. Before the war Hess was renowned for performing works by Austro-German composers such as Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Schumann and Brahms; she continued to schedule their works in her wartime performances, demonstrating her belief that enjoyment of music could be separated from politics. Like a number of other concerts, Hess’s wartime concert series was undeterred by the bombings inflicted in London and continued throughout the Blitz. On several occasions, the concerts had to be moved down to the basements of the gallery during air raids; during one concert, a bomb exploded in the middle of the Scherzo movement of Beethoven’s ‘Razoumovsky’ Quartet.

Hess also appeared in fourteen wartime Proms, played for Queen Elizabeth whilst she posed for a portrait, and travelled to Bletchley Park to entertain code breakers. She showed a strong support of the armed forces, performing with the uniformed orchestra of the Central Band of HM Royal Air Force as part of the 1942 propaganda film Listen to Britain, produced by the British Government’s Ministry of Information. Famously, she also climbed on to the wings of a B36 bomber aircraft in Trafalgar Square to make a public appeal for war savings. Her performances were filmed by two camera crews, widening the reach of her concert series beyond the confines of London. In June 1941, she was named Dame Commander of the British Empire (DBE), having already been awarded a CBE in 1936. Hess’s wartime efforts gained her international recognition, and after the end of the war she undertook her tour of America, performing under the baton of renowned conductor Arturo Toscanini.

By Daisy Fancourt

Sources

Bade, P. (2012) Music Wars 1937-1945 (London: East and West Publishing Ltd.)

Rosenfelder, R. ‘Dame Myra Hess’ Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia, 20 March 2009. Jewish Women’s Archive. [http://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/hess-dame-myra] [Viewed on May 27, 2013]