The concert pianist Myra Hess (1890–1965) started out rather slowly, but eventually hit the heights of musical fame as her skills became more widely recognized. She was famous for playing the works of composers such as Mozart, Beethoven, and Bach, but was especially praised for her renditions of Schumann's works. In World War II, during the Nazi bombing attacks on London, she put together a concert series that continued throughout some of the most desperate days of the war, raising the morale of her fellow citizens and demonstrating that the democratic British spirit would not be crushed. In the early early twenty-first century, Hess's name still stands for British pride and a democratic spirit incapable of being dented.
Hess was born on February 25, 1890, in Hampstead in North West London. She was the youngest of four children. When she was around five years old, Hess began taking piano lessons. At seven she attended the Guildhall School of Music, where she studied under such musical greats as Julian Pascal and Dr. Lando Morgan. She graduated from the Guildhall School when she was 12 years old with the highest honors, and was awarded a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music.
There she studied piano with Tobias Matthay, often been said to be one of the greatest piano teachers to come out of Britain. It was through work with Matthay that Hess matured as a pianist both mentally and technically, until she was considered good enough to perform as a solo concert pianist. Matthay was aware early on of how talented the young girl was, and so he encouraged her as much as he could. She soon became one of his favorite students. Hess liked Matthay
After college Hess had a difficult time getting her career going. She had to make all the initial arrangements for her concerts by herself, a challenge she had never faced before. She debuted as a concert pianist on November 14, 1907 when she was only 17 years old.
Her first concert was at Aeolian Hall, where she played Beethoven's Concerto No. 4 in G Major, conducted by the famous Sir Thomas Beecham, one of the best known conductors in England at the time. The concert brought Hess much critical and popular acclaim, and it was thought that her performance would catapult the young pianist to fame and glory. Unfortunately she was overshadowed by other musicians playing at the time, and soon fell back into obscurity.
In between concerts Hess took up teaching. She also worked at becoming a good chamber musician, and ended up playing with such musical greats as violinists Joseph Szigeti and Fritz Kreisler. She also went on to accompany such well-known musicians of the day as Lotte Lehmann and Nellie Melba. She spent time traveling around and performing in other countries, working to make her name known across Europe. In February of 1912 she performed in Holland. There she played Schumann's Piano Concerto in A minor, with the Concertgebouw Orchestra led by Willem Mengelberg. She was greatly praised for her work and was so well received that she was repeatedly invited back to Holland to perform.
By the end of World War I Hess was starting to regain her earlier popularity in England, and even to surpass it. She also traveled to the United States to perform a concert in New York City, and became a sensation when she debuted there on January 24, 1922. Critics loved the concert, and Hess was praised for her imagination and sensitivity to the music. She went on from New York to perform all over America in some of its largest cities, both in solo recitals and as a guest with different orchestras. The fame she garnered while in America followed her back home to Europe. She had remained close to her mentor, Matthay, during this entire period, and as she traveled across America, Hess referred many promising young pianists to England to be tutored by the great teacher.
In 1936, after her return to England, Hess was made a Companion of the Order of the British Empire by King George V. Five years later she was made a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire. She was awarded the Gold Medal of the Royal Philharmonic Society in 1941, an honor awarded only to the very best musicians.
Before World War II began Hess could be found touring all over Europe, including Germany, Austria, France, and Holland. She was most famous for playing Bach, Scarlatti, Beethoven, and Mozart, as well as Schumann and Brahms. She was also known for playing many different types of chamber music. She had a vast repertoire that included contemporary pieces as well as old favorites.
When World War II started all live concert performances stopped in Britain. Hess was in America at the time that war was declared, and she immediately canceled the rest of the tour she had planned in order to return home. Back in London Hess felt the immense need for morale boosting events. With that in mind she initiated lunchtime concerts at the National Gallery, which had been stripped of all its artwork and treasures to preserve them from German air attacks on the city.
The concerts were an instant success. People thronged to the National Gallery to hear the music. The city was suffering from blackouts and it was difficult for Londoners to travel around the city after dark, so Hess planned daytime concerts. As a defiant gesture against the Nazi bombardments, Hess assembled a host of musicians to perform. Much of the music they played was German or Austrian. Hess, who had become famous performing this music, continued to play it. She wanted to show Germans and British alike that it was possible to enjoy and love the art and music of a country while despising the political motivations and actions of its government. As a spiritual and morale boosting project, it worked amazingly well.
These concerts not only helped raise spirits in a time of great depression and anxiety, but also introduced classical music to many people who had never heard it before. Over the life of the concerts, Hess and her group played a myriad of songs, but some of the most well-received were performances of the complete series of Mozart Piano Concertos, played by Hess with the famous conductor Alec Sherman and the New London Orchestra.
By the time the war ended, more than 1300 concerts had been given at the National Gallery. The concerts ran throughout the war, even during the bombings of London, and they even brought in a little money for the musicians. When people in Canada and the United States heard of these concerts, they donated money to help keep them going even when very few people could attend.
When the war was over Hess returned to her musical career, and revisited the United States. She wrote an arrangement for piano of the chorale prelude "Jesu, bleibet meine Freude" ("Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring") from Johann Sebastian Bach's Cantata No. 147. The arrangement was praised internationally and added to her fame.
In the 1960s Hess became ill and could no longer live the strenuous life of a concert pianist. Instead she started teaching again because she did not want to give up the musical world entirely. She died on November 25, 1965, in London, and would be remembered not only as a famous and great pianist but as the person who organized the concerts in London during World War II. She was considered by the British to be a patriotic symbol of the stalwart British spirit that would never falter in the face of adversity.
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"Myra Hess," Arbiter Records , http://www.arbiterrecords.com/musicresourcecenter/hess.html (January 2, 2007).
"Dame Myra Hess: Concert Pianist," Carolina Classical , http://www.carolinaclassical.com/hess/ (January 2, 2007).