The concerts that helped win the Battle of Britain are the basis of Patricia Routledge and Piers Lane’s hit show.

In the midst of the World War II, just when it seemed that for the safety of the concert-going public, live classical music must be put on hold, one woman came up with a bright idea to lighten the musical darkness. That woman was British pianist Myra Hess, awarded a DBE in 1941 in recognition of her contribution to the war effort. Her grand scheme was the National Gallery Concerts, a program of over 1,600 musical events that boosted the morale of 750,000 ordinary Londoners over a period of six and a half years. Indeed the concerts lasted well beyond the end of hostilities, until ended ironically in 1946 by artistic barbarians from the gallery itself who feared that music was proving an unnecessary distraction from the paintings.

The concerts which defied the Luftwaffe looked set to pass into musical folk memory until, in 2007, the National Gallery decided to hold their first Myra Hess Day and invited Australian pianist Piers Lane to take part. “A friend of mine was in the audience and he got the fright of his life,” says Lane. “He saw Dame Myra Hess sitting in the audience – and since she’d died in 1965 that was a bit of a shock.” It turned out that the great Dame had not risen from the dead but was in fact the distinguished actress perhaps best known in Australia for her role in TV’s Keeping Up Appearances, Patricia Routledge. Struck by what he felt was an uncanny resemblance, Lane asked Nigel Hess, Myra’s great-nephew, to write a script about the famous concerts for Routledge to perform with Lane on piano and that became Admission: One Shilling, an acclaimed entertainment which has toured the world and comes to Australia in May.

So how did one woman manage to mount more than one and a half thousand concerts and were they really as remarkable as legend would have it? Piers Lane is in no doubt: “Dame Myra was an extraordinary woman,” he says. “She was one of the great pianists of her time.” Now 85, Patricia Routledge has personal memories: “I had seen and heard her during the war, as a school girl in Liverpool at Philharmonic Hall on Saturday afternoons” she says. “The remarkable thing is that not only did she organise and play at the National Gallery concerts, she made time to come to other parts of the country which had been badly blitzed, and create magic for us.”

Julia Myra Hess was born into a well-to-do Jewish family in Kilburn, London in 1890 and began piano lessons at the age of five. Her career skyrocketed when she made her debut under Sir Thomas Beecham playing Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto at the age of 17. A significant American following developed after her New York debut in 1922. She became something of a favourite with US audiences, her artistic standing allowing her to ‘negotiate’ with Toscanini after the two couldn’t agree on the proper tempo for a Beethoven concerto in 1946. But her greatest triumph was undoubtedly her big idea to provide spiritual nourishment for Britons in wartime.

In 1939, the British government, concerned with potential casualties from German bombing raids, decided to close London’s music halls and theatres. The National Gallery was also affected and most of its paintings removed from the capital for safekeeping. It was at this point that Hess approached the Director of the National Gallery, Kenneth Clark with an idea for lunchtime concerts in the empty building. Clark, who had feared it would be requisitioned by government pen pushers, was delighted at the thought of the Gallery being used for “the enjoyment of beauty, rather than for the filling in of forms or the sticking up of envelopes”. When Hess suggested an occasional concert, he replied, “Why not give one every day?”

Myra was quick to recognise the opportunity she had been given. “We are facing the annihilation of everything we hold important,” she wrote, “And this wonderful opportunity to give spiritual solace to those who are giving all to combat the evil seems, in some mysterious way, to have been given into my hands.” With only a few weeks to get ready, Hess and her team swung into action. The first concert, admission one shilling, took place in a hastily converted octagonal gallery complete with wooden platform and donated Steinway on October 10, 1939. It exceeded all expectations. Short of time, Hess had decided to give the first concert herself. “She thought there would be 40 or 50 of her friends there,” says Routledge, “but just before they began, Sir Kenneth Clark announced ‘there are 1000 people outside on the pavement’”. The queue stretched right round the block, a scene that was to be repeated over the years. The 500 seats were rapidly filled, and the rest of the audience were allowed to sit on the floor and munch their sandwiches. According to Clark the eclectic crowd included “young and old, smart and shabby, Tommies in uniform with their tin hats strapped on, old ladies with ear trumpets, musical students, civil servants, office boys, busy public men, all sorts had come.” 

Hess played Scarlatti, Bach and Beethoven plus some Schubert, Chopin and Brahms, and finally her own arrangement of Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring. Routledge, who remembers Hess’s Liverpool concerts, descibes her thus: “I will never forget, not only her gifts as a pianist and her integrity and commitment but her whole demeanour,” she says. “I can see it now – her dignity when she walked onto a platform. You knew that the music was the most important thing as she headed for that piano. And of course she wasn’t a pianist who showed off. She didn’t throw herself about, the way many people do now.”

As the concert series progressed it became an assertion that art and beauty could endure anything. The Royal Family acknowledged them with the late Queen Mother, a keen pianist herself, a regular attendee (Buckingham Palace was one of the more generous donors of chairs for the concerts). There was room for fun too. New Year’s Day 1940 saw a performance of Schumann’s Carnaval, where nine well-known pianists played musical chairs at two pianos. Kenneth Clark then made his conducting debut in a performance of Michael Haydn’s Toy Symphony. The impressive musical line-up included pianist Benno Moiseiwitsch on triangle and ‘jolly hockey sticks’ actress Joyce Grenfell blowing into a tin contraption as a nightingale. Myra Hess and fellow pianist, Irene Scharrer were the cuckoos, performing with what Clark would describe affectionately as “regrettable frivolity”.

Hess’s lighter side is remembered fondly by her niece Libbie Foster who recalls visitors expecting ‘Aunty Myra’ to be staid and serious. “She wasn’t at all,” she says. “There was never any ‘treat me with respect because I am a great concert pianist’. She would play games with us – crawling-on-the-floor sort of games when we were little, but as we got older, card games. She was an inveterate card player. She would make funny faces. Have you ever made orange-peel teeth? You cut up an orange, take the peel off and turn it inside out, and then make it into teeth. She was really wicked, she would put them in if we had visitors coming and answer the door.”

By September 1940 the Battle of Britain had begun in earnest with London subjected to nightly bombings. Undeterred, the concerts went on, relocated to the basement of the Gallery. If there was an air-raid, audiences who had picked there way over the rubble to get there would wait patiently for the all clear. One report describes the Stratton Quartet playing Beethoven when a device exploded elsewhere in the building. Allegedly the audience never moved and the players never missed a beat. The new underground ‘concert hall’ was damp and could only hold 400 people. Bitterly cold in winter, Hess played in a fur coat surrounded by stoves – on one occasion a forlorn clarinettist was seen trying to warm her instrument up to pitch over one of them!

Nevertheless, the concerts continued throughout the war, thanks largely to donations from public figures, private individuals and high profile overseas musicians – Rachmaninov and Toscanini gave generously. The repertoire was largely the ‘classics’, and ironically, mostly German music. “We find what audiences want is the music of Beethoven, Mozart, Bach, Brahms,” Myra commented at the time, “They do not want to sit forward and grapple with new works, but to sit back and listen to the great music that they know.” Players included Solomon, Moiseiwitsch, the Griller Quartet (who referred to Hess as ‘auntie’) and, after the liberation of France, Poulenc and the singer Pierre Bernac.

The final concert took place on April 10, 1946. Myra resumed her performing career, touring extensively and making a handful of respected recordings. Her final public appearance was at the Royal Festival Hall in 1961 when she played Mozart under Sir Adrian Boult. She died aged 75 of a heart attack in her London home in 1965. Nigel Hess recalls the house, which backed onto Lord’s Cricket Ground, with its lawn in the shape of a grand piano lid. “She loved living there,” he says, “When she heard the applause at the end of each over it reminded her of the applause she used to get in her concerts.” 

Routledge, who admits to only one of Lane’s claims of a resemblance to Hess (“we’re the same cut – the same sort of solid little body”), explains the show. “I do not depict her,” she says, emphatically, “but she does take over, there’s no question. She takes over in spirit”. The show is based on Hess’s letters, conversations, factual history and the odd broadcast. “It’s scripted with selections from her repertoire – which Piers plays,” she says. Lane sees Routledge as key to the show’s success. “Patricia is the ultimate professional,” he says. “She thinks about every syllable of every word. She’s a great musician. I know she’s listening to every phrase I play. It’s like playing chamber music with a great cellist or violinist”. He also looks forward to coming home. “To have Patricia do this show that’s become very important in my life, in my country, is such an exciting thing.”

But perhaps the most fitting final remark should go to Dame Myra herself, who said at the final concert: “It is seldom that we do not wish to be someone else, but for once I would not change places with anyone in the world. The experience of these six and a half years has been the greatest privilege any musician could hope to have”.



HESSENTIAL RECORDINGS


Bach · Schumann

Dame Myra Hess

BBC LEGENDS BBCL42012

The English Suite No. 2 is some of the loveliest Bach you will ever hear. A Haydn Sonata and Schumann's Carnaval complete the post-1950 program.


The Art of Myra Hess

Dame Myra Hess

HERITAGE HTGCD260

The Art of Myra Hess reissues material from the Pearl catalogue. A collection of recordings from 1928-1948 which capture the artist in her prime.


Violin Sonatas

Dame Myra Hess, Isaac Stern

TESTAMENT SBT1458

Stern's warm, vibrant tone and ability to spin a beautiful legato line are complemented by Hess's focus on a cantabile touch in Beethoven, Ferguson, Brahms and Schubert.



Admission: One Shilling tours Australia in May.