Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Birthday Girl: The Music (Wo)man

Courage comes in such unexpected forms...

That comes to mind at the moment, you see, because today is the 124th birthday of a very great and too-little remembered musician, one whose grace and unobtrusive courage was a beacon of civilization at a barbaric time.

The start of what turned into the Second World War was, initially, a death knell for the cultural and artistic life of London.  Theatres closed, performances were cancelled, and even the museums were emptied of their treasures.  A few people, though, knew that some form of cultural life remained a necessity in a great metropolis even in wartime, and within a few weeks, a plan had been hatched.  With his collections squirreled away for the duration in a slate mine in Wales, the Director of the National Gallery on Trafalgar Square, Kenneth Clark, opened its doors and made available the echoing, bare central galleries.  There, a group of musicians started what likely stands as the longest matinée run of concerts in history: 1,698 lunchtime performances between October of 1939 and the spring of 1945.

They were led by a remarkable pianist, Myra Hess, whom we see here in the venue that ensured her immortality, playing Mozart.  She performed at 150 of these concerts and presided in spirit over all of them.  They performed in the freezing winters, when the unheated galleries must have felt arctic, and on the occasional hot summer afternoon, the doors of the Gallery thrown open to catch a breeze.  They performed under the threat of air raids.  Occasionally - as here - they performed with a special guest or two in the house to complement the rapt daily audiences of wartime workers, tired soldiers, and anyone who needed reminding that there was something to life in London - to life, period - beyond the grind and privation and fear of war.

Dame Myra - for so she was from 1941 - was the public face of this effort, becoming in the process a globally recognized symbol of British resistance to everything that National Socialism stood for (doing so playing generous amounts of Mozart, Bach, and Brahms; one wonders how much Elgar or Bizet was heard in Berlin in those days).  She did so with the same practical calm she brought to her playing, knowing that as a Jewish woman she was especially vulnerable should the worst - as for a long time seemed quite entirely plausible - befall her country.

I first learned about Myra Hess and the lunchtime concerts years ago, in the marvelous diaries of the entertainer Joyce Grenfell, who was a concert regular and volunteer who became a good friend and lifelong admirer of the pianist.  Until today, though, when I went to YouTube to see what might seen, I had never seen her at work.  This clip is taken from a 1942 documentary called Listen to Britain, and while it's been carefully calibrated to pull at the heartstrings, neither Hess's playing (even with an initially unpromising military band that seems to improve miraculously once she starts playing) nor the event itself really seems to need it.  She's the real deal.


  1. Dame Myra was indeed unswerving in her contribution to Britain's "Blitz Spirit". She was also renowned for a wicked sense of humour, often pricking the bubble of pomposity that surrounded many classical icons such as Sir Thomas Beecham, and, on occasion being known for lying atop her piano to play, or to play while seated on the floor. A wonderful woman. Jx

  2. I had no idea these concerts had taken place. Lovely.
    And is there any situation in which the British won't bring along a picnic? Lovely as well.

    1. “Tea to the English is really a picnic indoors.” - Alice Walker