Hess, Myra (1890–1965)

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Hess, Myra (1890–1965)

English musical prodigy and concert pianist who organized the daily concerts at the National Gallery for six-and-a-half years during World War II. Name variations: Dame Myra Hess. Born Julia Myra Hess on February 25, 1890, in London, England; died in London on November 25, 1965; daughter of Frederick Solomon (a textile merchant) and Lizzie (Jacobs) Hess; attended Royal Academy of Music from age 13; never married; no children.

Started music lessons at age five (1895); won Ada Lewis scholarship at the Royal Academy of Music (1903); made official debut (1907); had first major success with a performance of the Schumann piano concerto in Amsterdam (1912); gave American recital in New York City (1922); made first recordings for Columbia USA, including her famous arrangement of J.S. Bach's "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring," (1928); awarded the rank of Commander, Order of the British Empire (OBE) by King George V, the first instrumentalist to have received this distinction (1936); founded and organized daily chamber music concerts in wartime London at National Gallery with assistance of Sir Kenneth Clark (October 1, 1940); received rank of Dame Commander, Order of the British Empire (CBE) from King George VI (1941); received gold medal of the Royal Philharmonic Society, the secondwoman pianist to be granted the honor (1942); appeared in the 1,000th concert of the National Gallery series (1943); appointed Commander of the Order of Orange-Nassau by Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands (1943); gave last of National Gallery concerts (April 10, 1946); resumed career with successful annual tours in the United Kingdom, Europe and the U.S. (1950–60); gave last public concert, Royal Festival Hall, London (October 31, 1961).

In the fall of 1940, Germany's Adolf Hitler launched an ongoing bombing attack on England that became known as the Battle of Britain. Besieged and alone, the people of England, particularly London, carried on, and despite Hitler's predictions, they never became demoralized. One reason that has been given is the symbolic value found in a series of daily concerts held for six-and-a-half years every Monday through Friday, under the glass dome of London's National Gallery. Gathered under the gallery dome, sometimes amid bomb fragments and shards of glass, audiences listened to performers play some of the world's greatest music, rising up as if in answer to the war being rained down on them nightly from overhead. Organized by the renowned British pianist Myra Hess, these daily events became an inspiration to the people of the British Isles in their time of greatest crisis.

Born in London on February 25, 1890, Julia Myra Hess was the fourth child of Frederick Solomon Hess, a textile merchant, and Lizzie Jacobs Hess , who had grown up in the family of a well-to-do north-London shopkeeper and money lender. Myra's paternal grandfather, Samuel Hess, was an Alsatian Jew, from the region often in dispute between Germany and France, which he left for the more cosmopolitan London early in the 19th century. Samuel became a successful textile entrepreneur, married the English-born Alice Cantor , and built a stylish home in Islington, where the couple raised three sons and four daughters. Frederick, the oldest son, became a partner in his father's business, manufacturing most of the many accoutrements—buttons, insignia, straps, braid, embroidery—for British military uniforms, the London Police, and the distinctively uniformed beefeater guards of the London Tower, as well as richly embroidered ecclesiastical vestments and altar cloths.

Frederick and Lizzie Hess lived in a comfortable home at 86 Alexandra Road, where they had four children. Irene , John, and Herbert all preceded the youngest, who was named "Julia" for a paternal aunt who died; at age three, she began to be called Myra. After her birth, the family moved to 78 Boundary Road, in Hampstead, a larger house on a tree-lined street, surrounded with gardens. A nursery on the ground floor opened to the outside, where Myra's father and brothers cultivated vegetables and berries and raised chickens. The family nanny, a Mrs. Bland , took the children for daily walks sometimes as far as Hampstead Heath, where Myra was charmed by the sound of singing birds. Mrs. Bland believed in cold baths, plain food, and everyday clothes, and toys and treats were few, but the children's life had pleasures. The children were often taken to dinner and the theater in the West End, a source of keen delight for Myra.

The Hess family was proudly Jewish. Pork and ham were excluded from the table and the Sabbath was strictly observed. Family members were forbidden to ride, drive, or be driven anywhere on that day, and, after Myra's father and brothers attended synagogue on Friday night, the entire family sat down for the Sabbath-eve dinner, an event she recalled with pleasure throughout her life.

Like all her siblings, Myra was given musical instruction. The Misses Reason taught all four children, and Myra began cello lessons at age five. Finding the cello unwieldy, she abandoned it after a few months for the piano, an upright instrument that stood in the nursery. The other children soon grew tired of the lessons, but Myra continued to excel, and was still only seven when Florence Reason told Lizzie Hess that she had taught the child all she knew. Shortly thereafter, Myra underwent aptitude testing at Trinity College. Required to play scales, arpeggios, and selected pieces from a prescribed list, to sight read, and answer questions about theory and music history, she became the youngest child ever to receive a Trinity College certificate.

Myra's next teachers were Julian Pascal and Orlando Morgan, who taught her theory and piano at the Guildhall school. Both were composers and later dedicated works to her. Myra was ten, in 1900, when the family went to Brussels because her brother Herbert suffered asthma attacks during the cold English winters. Aware that her youngest child was a prodigy, Lizzie Hess protected the little girl and saw that her music lessons continued in Brussels through the winter months. Back in England, the Hess family loved the theater and attended performances frequently, as Frederick Hess was one of the founders of the Playgoers' Club. Summers were idyllic, spent on the Isle of Wight, hunting blackberries, swimming, digging for clams, exploring

tidal basins, playing tennis, and building sand castles. Sabbaths in the Hess household were often musical events. The parents invited Myra's fellow music students to join them on Friday after dinner for an evening of entertainment. Young musicians and composers brought their instruments and performed their latest works in gatherings that were part of the happy times Myra recalled often in later life.

In 1902, Myra won the Steinway medal and scholarship. The following year, at age 13, she won the Ada Lewis scholarship to attend the Royal Academy of Music, chartered in 1823, and the oldest institution in Great Britain devoted to musical education. Her friend Irene Scharrer had won the Lewis scholarship at age 12, and the two studied there together under Tobias Matthay, whom Myra always referred to as her "only piano teacher." Described as "two very small eternally giggling girls," Myra and Irene were sometimes sent out into the hall when their good humor became too irrepressible, and while waiting for their lessons they would sometimes indulge in musical highjinks together on two grand pianos. At the end of the day, when they took separate buses home, Myra would walk Irene to her bus stop at Oxford Circus, but because they were engrossed in conversation, Irene would then accompany Myra back to her bus stop at the foot of Baker Street. Sometimes it would take three or four trips between bus stops before they reluctantly took leave of each other.

By the end of World War II, she was one of the major pianists; by war's end Hess became to the public more than a pianist—she was a heroine.

—David Dubal

Myra's serious study of the piano began at the Royal Academy. Exposed to Scharrer's fluent technique and powers of memory, she felt compelled to work harder. Of Professor Matthay, she later said, "I thought I was an accomplished pianist. But then I became a pupil of Tobias Matthay and discovered that I was just beginning to learn about music." The diminutive Hess had small hands and feet, and reaching an octave of piano keys remained difficult for her throughout her life. She often described herself as a short rider trying to mount a very tall horse without stirrups.

Matthay had a global perspective on music and often told his pupils, "We cannot snatch at the fine jewels of beauty; we must serve the community and seek the truth first." But he also taught Hess to enjoy music. Her progress was rapid if not spectacular, but she suffered from the common affliction of "stage nerves," and public performances went less well. Matthay provided support by being present at almost every performance, and his kindly reminder, "Enjoy the music," remained in her memory as long as she performed. Myra also became a close friend of Tobias' wife, Jessie Matthay , whose talent was reciting verse. Hess was frequently in the couple's home and referred to them as her "Uncle Tobias" and "Aunt Jessie."

In 1906, wearing the academy's regulation white dress with a red sash drawn over one shoulder, Hess soloed in Queen's Hall, with the Matthays sitting proudly in the audience. That same year, she won the prestigious Walter Mac-Farren gold medal for pianoforte. An academy faculty member later summed up those years, saying, "Myra Hess was, of course, our greatest star at the Royal Academy."

On November 14, 1907, Hess made her official professional debut in Queen's Hall. Following the usual custom of renting the hall and engaging a conductor and musicians at her own expense, she was able to enlist the services of the New Symphony Orchestra and its young conductor, Thomas Beecham. The Hess family fortunes had fallen considerably, and Myra's father considered the venture foolish, so financing the event was no easy task. Also, Beecham did not approve of women musicians and was sometimes inconsiderate. Nevertheless, funding was secured, and the program featured a picture of Hess as a stunning beauty of 17 in a pastel gown. The notices for her performance of Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, and Saint-Saëns were favorable on the whole, and better than Beecham's for his conducting. While one critic claimed, "A new star has arisen in the musical world, whose light should shine brilliantly for many years to come," Hess' later assessment of that evening was more down to earth: "It was a great success, but it did not lead to immediate or numerous paying engagements."

On December 12, Hess gave a performance in Birmingham. The following month, on January 25, 1908, she gave a solo recital in London's Aeolian Hall. For this event, she decided to charge popular prices, with no seat costing more than six shillings, and on February 22, she played the Aeolian again, with a mostly Beethoven program. Concerts were costly, however, and Hess turned to teaching to support herself, while also accepting every opportunity to play, including entertaining in private homes. Music clubs, local philharmonics and concert societies throughout Britain provided opportunities to perform, and on September 2, 1908, she appeared in one of London's popular Promenade Concerts, as the soloist with Sir Henry Wood in a performance of Liszt's E Flat Concerto. Still her opportunities for a successful career remained uncertain, and Hess became depressed. She had been preparing for another Promenade Concert, when she set out on a lengthy walk along London's Hampstead Heath, carrying a sharp pocket knife, planning to lacerate her fingers so badly that she would not be able to perform the next day, if ever again. In the course of the walk, she was able to recognize such an act as a cowardly escape from her current difficulties and returned home able to continue, a moment she looked upon later as a turning point, after which she never considered giving up her goal of a concert career.

In 1912, Hess enjoyed a major success with her performance of the Schumann piano concerto in Amsterdam, with the Concertgebouw orchestra conducted by Willem Mengelberg. But in 1914, the outbreak of World War I soon put an end to concert performances, and Hess taught until the war was over, in 1918. On January 17, 1922, she made a highly successful New York debut, and her growing popularity led to annual tours of the U.S. after 1923. In 1928, she made a recording for Columbia, playing her signature piece, "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring." During that decade, she also joined the London String Quartet for chamber music performances at the annual Bradford Chamber Music Festival. By the 1930s, she was an established star when she formed a successful partnership for performing sonatas with the Hungarian violinist Jelly d'Aranyi . In 1936, King George V awarded Hess with the rank of Commander, Order of the British Empire (OBE), the first instrumentalist to be so honored.

In the late 1930s, while war clouds gathered over Europe, Hess continued to record and perform in concert. In 1939, five weeks before the Nazi takeover of Austria, she played a recital in Vienna. Shortly after Hitler's declaration of war in September, Hess was back in England, spending the weekend with her old teacher, Tobias Matthay, when the idea came to her to institute some sort of concert series. After a discussion with Matthay, who had always encouraged his pupils to serve their communities, and with Denise Lassimonne , she approached Sir Kenneth Clark, director of the National Gallery, about performing there, since the gallery's art works had all been put into storage. An announcement soon appeared that chamber music would be performed on weekdays, Monday through Friday, at 1 pm, in the National Gallery for the admission price of one shilling. Any profits would go to the Musicians Benevolent Fund, a group hard hit by the cessation of concerts caused by the war.

On October 10, 1939, as Hess prepared for the first concert, concerned that no one might come, a line began to form, stretching around the corner into Trafalgar Square, long before 1 pm. Roughly a thousand people showed up that day. A few weeks later, the popularity of the concerts was strongly confirmed when Lady Gater suggested that a canteen be set up to provide the audiences with lunch sandwiches, and soon there was even more money going into the Musicians Benevolent Fund.

Expenses for the series were kept to a minimum. There was a flat fee for performing, paid to novices as well as to seasoned performers; Hess herself collected nothing. Her goal for the series was to present the complete repertory of chamber music and to provide opportunities for new performers to play alongside established ones. Concerts were planned a month in advance and weekly programs were printed, though they became smaller and smaller as the war effort brought a paper shortage. Audiences were between 250–1,750 daily. Like London's famous burlesque show at the Windmill Theater, the National Gallery Concerts could boast that they were never closed down.

But the war intruded. As bombing over London intensified, the concerts were moved from the National Gallery's glass-roofed dome downstairs to the shelter room. During the winter of 1940–41, as the Germans carried out their nightly air raids, performers and audience members found it necessary to pick their way through the city's smoldering buildings and shattered streets to attend. Inside the National Gallery, the shelter room was unheated and the cold was intense, while large pools of water collected on the stone floor. While the audience sat listening wrapped in rugs and coats, the musicians played with fingers turned blue with cold. On October 15, 1940, Hess was informed that a time bomb had fallen on the gallery and the building must be evacuated immediately. Half an hour later, the audience had been moved to the library of nearby South Africa House and sat listening to the music while the search for the bomb in the gallery went on. On another occasion, a portion of the gallery had been hit, and a time bomb was found buried in the wreckage, requiring that everyone be moved hurriedly to a distant part of the building. Once a bomb went off during a Beethoven String Quartet, but miraculously, despite a terrific explosion, no one was hurt.

While the concerts continued, Hess herself played 146 times and performed with an enormous number of chamber groups. Mastering new works, she found time to learn a dozen Mozart concertos, and although the music might sound shaky in practice sessions, in performance she would rise to the occasion, playing as though she had known the piece all her life. Rather than memorizing the pieces, she began during this time to play from the score. Apologetic at first, she gradually felt free to rely on the sheet music whenever needed. When the bombing subsided, the concerts were moved back to the dome, where they remained until the summer of 1944, when flying bombs began to appear and a return to the shelter room became necessary. On the fifth anniversary of the concert series, a commemorative booklet giving its history was issued, and, as the war drew to an end, more and more performers arriving from abroad were joyously welcomed at the event.

In 1941, while the war still raged, Myra Hess was knighted for her war contribution, awarded the title of Dame Commander, Order of the British Empire (CBE) by King George VI. In 1946, with the war ended, and the nation in recovery, the future of the concerts came under debate. Dame Myra hoped that they might continue but wanted to retire from directing them. Finally it was decided that the series—after 1,698 concerts, involving 238 pianists, 236 string players, 64 wind players, 157 singers, 24 string quartets, 56 other ensembles, 13 orchestras, 15 choirs, and 24 conductors—would end. By April 10, 1946, when the final concert was held, three-quarters of a million people from all walks of life, including ordinary music lovers and those who had never listened before to a live classical concert, as well as England's queen and her daughters, Princess Elizabeth (II) and Princess Margaret Rose , had been part of the concert audiences.

Past her mid-50s, Hess had continued to grow as a performer and was free now to return to her concert career. Recognized as genuine hero as well as a great artist, she was joyously welcomed in the U.S. and throughout Europe. Apart from holding the title of Dame, she had also received the gold medal of the Royal Philharmonic Society in 1942, only the second woman pianist to receive this tribute, and she had been honored by the Netherlands' equivalent of her British title, appointed Commander of the Order of Orange-Nassau by Queen Wilhelmina in 1943. Hess continued to tour throughout the 1950s, but by then illnesses were beginning to take their toll, and she played with increasing difficulty. Her last public appearance was at the Royal Festival Hall on October 31, 1961.

A bleak period followed, as retirement did not suit Dame Myra well. With her hands crippled by arthritis, she could no longer play or teach. Death came finally on November 25, 1965, in London, to the woman revered as a musician and a true war hero, who provided the concerts that became such an important symbol for all of Britain, during its "finest hour."


Amis, John. "Dame Myra Hess Remembered," in The Musical Times. Vol. 131, no. 1764. February 1990, p. 85.

Clark, Kenneth. The Other Half: A Self-Portrait. London: John Murray, 1977, pp. 27–30.

Ferguson, Howard. "Myra Hess," in The Dictionary of National Biography 1961-1970. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1981, pp. 508–510.

Hess, Myra. "Britain," in Musical America. Vol. 64, no. 3. February 10, 1944, pp. 9, 30.

Lassimonne, Denise, comp., and Howard Ferguson, ed. Myra Hess, by Her Friends. London: Hamish Hamilton, 1966.

McKenna, Marian C. Myra Hess: A Portrait. London: Hamish Hamilton, 1976.

Myers, Rollo H. "Music since 1939" in Arnold H. Haskell, et al., Since 1939. London: Readers Union, 1948, pp. 97–144.

John Haag , Associate Professor, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia