Myra Hess: an introduction to the iconic pianist

Jeremy Nicholas
Tuesday, April 4, 2023

Jeremy Nicholas pays tribute to this British pianist who became a national treasure owing in part to her instigation and dedicated promotion of a wartime concert series in London

Dame Myra Hess (photography: Granger/Bridgeman Images)
Dame Myra Hess (photography: Granger/Bridgeman Images)

To an older generation of readers, Dame Myra Hess is remembered not only as one of the most beloved pianists of her day but also as a much-cherished symbol of British sangfroid during the Second World War. There she is in a fur coat practising for one of the concerts she instigated at the (unheated) National Gallery in London, even as the bombs dropped. And there she is on film playing a Mozart concerto with Queen Elizabeth (later the Queen Mother) in the audience seated next to gallery director Kenneth Clark. How imperiously she addresses the keyboard, yet how high her hands come off at the ends of phrases, a smile playing round her lips. A concert pianist might have seemed an unlikely figure to have become a national treasure, but Dame Myra (as she became in 1941) was classical music’s Dame Vera Lynn.

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There is film, too, of her playing the piece of music for which she is equally fondly remembered: her transcription of the chorale from Bach’s cantata no 147, Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben; written in 1920 and published in 1926 as Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring. She recorded it three times in all (1928, 1940 and 1957), one of those evergreens on a par with Paderewski playing his Minuet in G, or Ernest Lough singing ‘O for the wings of a dove’. In one iteration or another, it has never been out of the catalogue.

The epitome of dignity and composure in public, she was quite different off stage

Julia Myra Hess was the youngest of four children born to Orthodox Jewish parents in affluent Hampstead, north London, on February 25, 1890. Her father was a partner in the family’s textile firm. After studies in London at Trinity College, the Guildhall School of Music and the Royal Academy of Music, she made her debut in the capital with a performance of the fourth piano concertos of both Beethoven and Saint-Saëns (playing her own cadenzas in the Beethoven, though these were later destroyed by her) conducted by the 28-year-old Thomas Beecham.

In early portraits, she appears striking rather than beautiful. The most familiar image is of her in later life when she was rather stout, her hair ‘arranged’, as her friend the actress Joyce Grenfell described it, ‘in two shallow scallops on her forehead and drawn back into a bun at the back’. While she was the epitome of dignity and composure in public, she was quite different off stage. ‘Hyra Mess’ (as she sometimes referred to herself) had an irrepressible sense of humour; her lifelong friend Irene Scharrer recalled that this led to ‘times when we were overcome with giggles’. Scharrer, two years older than Hess, had been a fellow student at the Royal Academy of Music under Tobias Matthay, whom they adored as ‘Uncle Tobs’ and who exercised an enduring influence on them. ‘Hers was the most brilliant wit I have ever known,’ wrote Scharrer, ‘with an almost infectious delight in nonsense.’ In her few extant interviews, you can hear what a deliciously smoky voice and mischievous chuckle Hess had.

In 1908, she made her Proms debut playing Liszt’s Piano Concerto in E flat under Henry Wood, the first of many occasions on which they would perform together. Indeed, from this point onwards she played with many famous conductors and star soloists, such as Willem Mengelberg, Fritz Kreisler, Nellie Melba and Lotte Lehmann; she also gave two-piano performances with Scharrer. However, after her debut it took over a decade for her career to become firmly established. Her fame grew during the 1920s and ’30s, but one aspect of her life remains a mystery: she seems never to have had a significant other, keeping her private life firmly out of the public gaze.

In the years before the war, Hess played around a hundred concerts a year and was at the very heart of British musical life. During her career, she made a total of 96 appearances at the Proms, beginning with her 1908 debut and then playing in every season but one (1946) from 1916 until 1961, sometimes engaged for as many as four concerts.

After the war she continued living in St John’s Wood in London, but moved to a house that backs on to Lord’s cricket ground. ‘She loved living there,’ her great-nephew the composer Nigel Hess tells me, ‘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.’ Her final years were not happy. With a number of debilitating illnesses and unable to play in public any longer, she suffered from acute depression. In the words of her friend the composer and musicologist Howard Ferguson, ‘Life 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.’

Defining Moments

• 1895 – An early start

Begins piano lessons aged five

• 1897 – Enters Trinity College of Music, London

Becomes youngest ever recipient of its certificate

• 1903 – Wins scholarship

Begins studies at Royal Academy of Music, London,
with long-term mentor Tobias Matthay

• 1907 – Official debut

Aged 17, at Queen’s Hall, London, two concertos under Thomas Beecham; followed in January 1908 by recital debut, Aeolian Hall

• 1908 – London ‘Proms’ debut

At Queen’s Hall (under Henry Wood); later appears every year (except 1946) from 1916 to 1961

• 1922 – US debut

First of more than 40 visits to America

• 1927 – First studio recording

December, New York: Schubert’s Piano Trio in B flat, D898,
with violinist Jelly d’Arányi and cellist Felix Salmond

• 1934 – Diagnosis of illness

Unbeknown to the public, she was diagnosed with fibrocystic breast disease and underwent a double mastectomy

• 1936 – First of two UK honours

For services to music: CBE; 1941: DBE

• 1939 – Begins National Gallery concert series

First concert October 10: plays programme of Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Chopin, Scarlatti and Schubert

• 1946 – National Gallery concert series ends

Last concert April 10. The weekday lunchtime concerts had been attended by 824,152 people; Hess played in 146 of 1,698 of them

• 1961 – Last public performance

October 31: Mozart’s Piano Concerto in A, K488; LPO under Sir Adrian Boult, Royal Festival Hall, London

• 1965 – End of an era

November 25: dies at home in London of a heart attack, aged 75

Essential Recording

Myra Hess ‘The Complete Solo and Concerto Studio Recordings’

Myra Hess, Hamilton Harty pfs CBSO / Basil Cameron; Philharmonia Orchestra / Rudolf Schwarz; et al


Hess professed not to like her own recordings. Many of her admirers think she is heard at her best in live concert performances, but her studio discs are a treasure trove of varied repertoire where a generous spirit and the warm, singing tone common to all Matthay pupils are always much in evidence. This five-CD box-set contains her complete solo and concerto studio recordings made between 1928 and 1957.

The article originally appeared in the March 2023 issue of Gramophone magazine. Never miss an issue – subscribe today

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