Dame Julia Myra Hess, DBE (25 February 1890 – 25 November 1965) was a British pianist.
Julia Myra Hess was born on 25 February 1890 to a Jewish family in Kilburn, London. The youngest of four children, she began playing the piano at an early age, starting lessons when she was five.. Two years later, she entered the Guildhall School of Music, where she graduated as winner of the Gold Medal.
She studied at the Royal Academy of Music under Tobias Matthay. Her debut came in 1907 when she played Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 4 with Sir Thomas Beecham conducting. She went on to tour through Britain, the Netherlands and France. Upon her American debut (New York City, 24 January 1922) she became a prime favourite in the United States, not only as a soloist, but also as an ensemble player. She also has a link to jazz, having given lessons in the 1920s to Elizabeth Ivy Brubeck, mother of Dave Brubeck.
Hess garnered greater fame during the Second World War when, with all concert halls blacked out at night to avoid being targets of German bombers, she organised what would turn out to be almost 2,000 lunchtime concerts spanning a period of six years, starting during the London Blitz. The concerts were held at the National Gallery, in Trafalgar Square; Hess herself played in 150 of them. For this contribution to maintaining the morale of the populace of London, King George VI awarded her the Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire (DBE) in 1941. (She had previously been created a CBE in 1936.) She makes a brief appearance performing at one of her lunchtime concerts in the 1942 wartime documentary Listen to Britain (directed by Humphrey Jennings and Stuart McAllister).
Hess began her lunchtime concerts a few weeks after the start of the Second World War. They were presented on Monday to Friday, for six-and-a-half years without fail. If London was being bombed, the concert was moved to a smaller, safer room. Every artist was paid five guineas no matter who they were. In all, Hess presented 1,968 concerts seen by 824,152 people. Hess's lunchtime concerts influenced the formation of the City Music Society. Hess was once involved in a decision to refuse the filming of a scene at the National Gallery of the black actor Robert Adams playing at a concert. It has been alleged that Hess declared that "no black man had ever been permitted to play at any of her concerts" and that as a result, the director Dickenson had to construct the National Gallery in a studio.
In 1946, Arturo Toscanini invited Hess to perform with the NBC Symphony Orchestra in New York City. According to Toscanini's biographer, Mortimer Frank, after Hess and the conductor had failed to agree on tempos for Beethoven's Fifth Piano Concerto, they decided instead to perform Beethoven's Third. The 24 November 1946 broadcast concert was preserved on transcription discs and later issued on CD by Naxos Records.
Hess was most renowned for her interpretations of the works of Mozart, Beethoven and Schumann, but had a wide repertoire, ranging from Domenico Scarlatti to contemporary works. She gave the premiere of Howard Ferguson's Piano Sonata and his Piano Concerto. She also played a good amount of chamber music and performed in a piano duo with Irene Scharrer. She promoted public awareness of the piano duet and two-piano works of Schubert.
In 1926 and 1934 she famously arranged, for both solo piano and for two pianos the chorale, Wohl mir, daß ich Jesum habe from Bach's Cantata Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben, BWV 147. This is Movement 6 of the cantata; the music is the same for Movement 10, Jesus bleibet meine Freude. Her arrangement was published under the title Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring, which is a translation of neither of these German titles but, roughly, of the unrelated work Jesu, meiner Seelen Wonne by Martin Janus (or Jahn). The chorale melody, written in 1641, is by violinist Johann Schop, not Bach who composed its setting.
Her protégés included Clive Lythgoe and Richard and John Contiguglia and Leah (Celine) Benatar (Leah Labos) between 1941 and 1944, a noted linguist, cryptanalyst and Egyptologist. She was a teacher of Stephen Kovacevich (then known as Stephen Bishop).
Last concert and retirement
In September 1961, Hess played her final public concert at London's Royal Festival Hall. She was forced to retire after suffering a stroke in early 1961 while in New York on her annual concert tour in America. Although she courageously fought the debilitating effects of the stroke, by the end of the summer of that year it became clear that her public playing days were over. She continued to teach a handful of students, notably Stephen Kovacevich, during her last years.
Chicago Dame Myra Hess Memorial Concerts
In 1977, the Chicago Cultural Center began a series of free lunchtime concerts held at its Preston Bradley Hall every Wednesday from 12:15–1pm, named in Hess's honour as the Dame Myra Hess Memorial Concerts. The series is produced by Chicago's International Music Foundation. Since 1977, the concerts have been broadcast live on radio station WFMT and streamed at WFMT.com.
In popular culture
Myra Hess is mentioned twice in Diana Wynne Jones' novel, The Time of the Ghost. Both are references to Myra Hess' talent as a concert pianist. In the play Noises Off, one character's penchant for continuing to deliver his lines while ignoring the director is likened to "Myra Hess playing through the air raids." In the novel The Cruel Sea, a character attends a 1943 concert at the National Gallery in London by Hess, and is deeply moved.
- Listen to Britain (1942) – IMDb
- Stephen Bourne, Black in the British Frame: The Black Experience in the British Film and Television, 2001, p.74.
- Mortimer H. Frank, Arturo Toscanini: The NBC Years, Amadeus Press, 2002, p. 87.
- Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring, Arranged by Myra Hess
- Reading Eagle newspaper – Heart Attack Brings Death To Myra Hess
- "HESS, DAME MYRA (1890–1965)". English Heritage. Retrieved 5 August 2012.
- International Music Foundation – About Dame Myra Hess
- International Music Foundation – The Dame Myra Hess Memorial Concerts
- Rosenfelder, Ruth. "Dame Myra Hess." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 20 March 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. 5 January 2010
- Myra Hess – Naxos Classical Music
- video of Myra Hess performing her arrangement of "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring"