Myra Hess: how the pianist became a wartime hero during the Blitz

Acclaimed British concert pianist Dame Myra Hess brought music to the masses throughout the Second World War with her morale-raising recitals at London’s National Gallery. We look back on her colourful life

British pianist Dame Myra Hess (1890 - 1965) conducts Haydn's'Toy Symphony' of toy musical instruments at the National Gallery, London, 14th July 1945. On the left is a new bust of Hess by Jacob Epstein. Original publication: Picture Post - 2031- Toy Symphony - pub. 1950 (Photo by Jack Esten/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

London, 1940. The Blitz. Black and white images etched on the nation’s collective consciousness: the dome of St Paul’s surrounded by smoke and flames; the King and Queen visiting the bombed ruins of the East End; Myra Hess in a fur coat playing the piano at the National Gallery. Pictures which all said the same thing: defiance. Dame Myra, as she became in 1941, was an unlikely hero – classical music’s Dame Vera Lynn (whose music features in our round-up of the most popular songs during the Second World War) – and a much-cherished symbol of British indomitability. The National Gallery Concerts defined her every bit as much as her keyboard arrangement of Jesu, joy of man’s desiring, one of the most beloved of all piano recordings. We named this as one of Myra Hess’s best recordings.

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Half a century after her death, Myra Hess is far from forgotten. Yet what do we know about the woman behind the photographs, the recordings and the grainy archive film of her playing her Bach transcription or the opening movement of Beethoven’s ‘Appassionata’ Sonata?

St. Paul's Cathedral standing gloriously out of flames & smoke of surrounding bldgs. during great fire raid by Germans. (Photo by Time Life Pictures/New York Times Paris Bureau Collection/National Archives/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images) Additional permissions required for merchandise and/or resale products; fine art prints; gallery, nonprofit or museum displays; or theatrical live performances. Contact your local Getty Images office.
St Paul’s Cathedral during a great fire raid by the Germans in the Second World War (Photo: Getty Images)

In two early portraits aged nine and 15 she is striking looking rather than beautiful. The familiar image of her is in later life when she had grown rather stout, her hair, with a centre parting, ‘arranged in two shallow scallops on her forehead,’ as her friend Joyce Grenfell described it, ‘and drawn back into a bun at the back’. In these pictures she appears austere and dowdy in ankle-length black dresses with a white blouse her only concession to softer femininity, a sombre and conservative fashion plate, and the epitome of dignity and composure. This was in sharp contrast to the offstage persona. Myra Hess (or ‘Hyra Mess’ as she sometimes referred to herself) had an irrepressible sense of humour. Laughter and japes were never far away and in her few extant interviews you can hear that, apart from a most beautiful and musical speaking voice, she had a deliciously smoky, mischievous chuckle, much like that of the present-day actress Dame Judi Dench.

‘There were times,’ recalled her friend Irene Scharrer, ‘when we were overcome with giggles.’ Scharrer (1888-1971), two years older than Myra, was a fellow student with her at the Royal Academy of Music under Tobias Matthay, their adored ‘Uncle Tobs’, who exercised an enduring influence on them. The two women became inseparable. ‘Hers was the most brilliant wit I have ever known,’ wrote Scharrer, ‘with an almost infectious delight in nonsense. She would sing that terrible song “The Rosary” in a rich, plummy contralto voice, a semitone flat throughout… And then her singing of “The Jewel Song” from Gounod’s Faust, while I tinkled out her accompaniment on the piano, was never to be forgotten.’

Myra Hess: a brief biography

Julia Myra Hess was born on 25 February 1890 in affluent Hampstead, the youngest of four children of Orthodox Jewish parents. Aged seven, she became the youngest child ever to receive a certificate from Trinity College of Music. From there she studied at the Guildhall before winning a scholarship to the RAM. For her London debut in 1907, she played the Fourth Piano Concertos of both Beethoven and Saint-Saëns conducted by Thomas Beecham (we named the best recordings of Thomas Beecham here), a self-promoted concert which led nowhere (Hess, incidentally, as she habitually did at this time, played her own cadenzas in the Beethoven, though these were later destroyed by her). By no means daunted, she organised two recitals at Aeolian Hall in early 1908. Though well received, it would be another decade and more before her career was firmly established.

You can find Myra Hess’s house in Hampstead today. We named it as one of the best places to visit for composers and musicians with blue plaques today.

Collaborations with star conductors

In an interview with John  Amis three years before her death, she recalled making her Albert Hall debut in 1908 playing Liszt’s E flat Concerto: ‘I had the large fee of three guineas!’ The conductor was Henry Wood and it was the first of many occasions on which they would perform together. ‘He was wonderful, so kind. I remember once playing the Mozart D minor Concerto with him. I was still very young and I took a wrong turning in the first movement and thought, “Well, that’s the end of my career. He’ll never engage me again.” I came off the platform and apologised profoundly. “My dear,” he said, “that was nothing. You might have gone into the wrong movement. Then we’d have had some fun!”’ Myra Hess made 95 appearances at the Proms, playing in every season but one (1946) from 1916 until 1961, sometimes engaged for as many as four concerts.

From her teenage years, Hess played with many famous conductors (including Willem Mengelberg) and star soloists such as Fritz Kreisler, Nellie Melba, Joseph Szigeti and Lotte Lehmann as well as giving two-piano performances with Irene Scharrer (a bigger name at this time and who had made her first recording back in 1905). In 1922 Myra made the first of no fewer than 40 visits to America – she would often remain for three or four months at a time, so popular did she become there – and it was in New York in December 1927 that she first entered the recording studio (Schubert’s B flat Trio with her friends Jelly d’Arányi and Felix Salmond). Just a few days later in January 1928 she cut her first solo commercial discs, including the earliest of the three she made of Jesu, joy (as she called it).

Was Myra Hess married?

Her fame grew during the 1920s and ’30s but one aspect of her life remains a blank. There seems never to have been a significant other, male or female, though rumours persisted. In the 1920s there was a falling out with Harriet Cohen over the affections of Arnold Bax; later there was a series of devoted female travelling companions and secretaries, and a close friendship with the (gay) composer Howard Ferguson. But of whatever her private life consisted, she kept it out of the public gaze.

23rd April 1941: Queen Elizabeth and King George VI of Great Britain visiting bomb sites in London. (Photo by Central Press/Getty Images)
Queen Elizabeth and King George VI visit bomb sites in London. (Photo by Central Press/Getty Images)

Health issues

Throughout the 1930s, Hess played around 100 concerts a year in Britain, Europe and America – except in 1934 when, unknown to the public, she was diagnosed with fibrocystic breast disease and, on the recommendation of her American doctor, underwent a double mastectomy. She was now at the very heart of British musical life (she was appointed CBE in 1936).

How Myra Hess’s wartime lunchtime concerts began

When war was declared, all theatres, cinemas and concert halls were closed, so when Hess’s friend Denise Lassimonne suggested putting on concerts in the National Gallery, Myra was well placed to approach the director, Sir Kenneth Clark. He enthusiastically agreed to daily lunchtime concerts there. Myra gave the first one (10 October 1939) and a queue of 1,000 formed to hear her (the Home Office had given permission for an audience of just 200). She played a programme of composers to whom she was closest: Scarlatti, Bach, Beethoven, Schubert, Chopin and Brahms (she later dropped Chopin from her repertoire).

Designed to lift the morale of the general public living through the privations of war, the National Gallery Concerts charged one shilling admission (profits went to The Musicians’ Benevolent Fund) and each artist, regardless of age or fame, was paid the same fee of five guineas. Myra’s aim was to present first-rate chamber music at an affordable price as well as giving up-and-coming young musicians the opportunity to perform with established artists. It was she who set the agenda. At one memorable concert on New Year’s Day 1940, nine well-known pianists played musical chairs in Schumann’s Carnaval followed by Haydn’s ‘Toy’ Symphony conducted by Sir Kenneth, with Elena Gerhardt (toy drum), Benno Moiseiwitsch (triangle) and Irene Scharrer and Myra Hess (cuckoos).

British pianist Dame Myra Hess (1890 - 1965) conducts Haydn's'Toy Symphony' of toy musical instruments at the National Gallery, London, 14th July 1945. On the left is a new bust of Hess by Jacob Epstein. Original publication: Picture Post - 2031- Toy Symphony - pub. 1950 (Photo by Jack Esten/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Myra Hess conducts Haydn’s’Toy Symphony’ of toy musical instruments at the National Gallery, London, 14 July 1945. On the left is a new bust of Hess by Jacob Epstein. (Photo by Jack Esten/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

In 1942, Myra Hess won the Royal Philharmonic Society Gold Medal for her contributions to British musical life during the war. Check out our list of all the previous RPS Gold Medal winners.

The National Gallery Concerts continued until April 1946, a total of 1,698 in all. Hess, amazingly, played at 146 of them. She attracted all the best musicians of the day, including horn player Dennis Brain, who appeared at a total of 26 lunchtime concerts. Despite the dangers, the bombs and funding problems, there was not a single cancellation. Like the girls at the Windmill Theatre a short distance away, Dame Myra could claim ‘We Never Closed’.

Find out what other classical musicians did to survive during the Second World War here.

The post-war years

After the war she moved the short distance from 8, Carlton Hill in St John’s Wood, London, to Cavendish Close and a house backing on to Lord’s Cricket Ground. Her great-nephew, the composer Nigel Hess, remembers his visits there as a small boy and the lawn cut in the shape of a grand piano lid. ‘She said to me that she loved living there because when she heard the applause at the end of each cricket over it reminded her of the applause she used to get at her concerts.’

In the post-war decades, Dame Myra had a number of debilitating illnesses which, cumulatively, must have taken their toll: hepatitis, an emergency operation to remove her gall-bladder, a coronary thrombosis in 1960 and then arthritis. She retired in 1961 – her last public performance was with Sir Adrian Boult and the LPO playing Mozart’s A major concerto, K488.

How did Myra Hess die?

Her final years were not happy. Unable to play in public any longer, she suffered from depression. Life, in the words of Howard Ferguson, ‘became a desert, and each morning brought anew the fearful problem of how in the world she was going to get through the next day.’ She died of a heart attack on 25 November 1965.

Myra Hess’s legacy and famous students

Her pianistic legacy lives on in a few pupils, now distinguished pianists themselves: Stephen Kovacevich, Richard and John Contiguglia and the late Yonty Solomon who in turn taught Piers Lane. It is Lane who, with the actress Patricia Routledge, presents an entertainment written by Nigel Hess about his great aunt entitled Admission One Shilling.

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Every Wednesday lunchtime in the Preston Bradley Hall of the Chicago Cultural Center (and broadcast live on WMFT radio) there is a free Dame Myra Hess Memorial Concert. And since 2007, the National Gallery has staged an annual Dame Myra Hess Day supported by The Ernest Hecht Charitable Foundation. Not many pianists can boast such accolades 50 years after their death.