An Homage to Dame Myra Hess


Myra Hess photographed by Carl Van Vechten

A continuation of our tales from Vienna... 

One of the works performed and recorded by Nina Kennedy at the Bösendorfer Salon was the arrangement for solo piano of the Chorale from Cantata number 147 called "Jesu bleibt meine Freude," (loosely translated "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring") by Johann Sebastian Bach. That published arrangement was made by Dame Myra Hess, a world-renowned concert pianist and hero to the people of London because of the free afternoon concerts she organized and in which she performed at the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square during the Second World War. Since there was an official black-out declared at the onset of the bombings by the Nazis, this meant that there were no evening concerts or gatherings because no lights could be turned on at night. Nearly 2,000 of these lunchtime concerts took place during the war, for six-and-a-half years. 

For this contribution to maintaining the morale of the populace of London, King George VI proclaimed Myra Hess a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1941. His wife Queen Elizabeth, a great music lover and patron of the arts, was often in attendance at the National Gallery Concerts, bringing her daughters Elizabeth and Margaret along.



Hess was born on February 25th, 1890 to a Jewish family in South Hampstead. She was the youngest of four children, and began piano lessons at age five. She studied at the Guildhall School of Music and the Royal Academy of Music, under Tobias Matthay. She made her debut 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. By 1920 Myra had a big career in England, giving over 100 concerts a year.


Upon her American debut (in New York City on January 24th, 1922), she became a prime favorite in the United States—not only as a soloist, but also as an ensemble player.


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 November 24th, 1946 broadcast concert was preserved on transcription discs and later issued on CD by Naxos Records.


Myra Hess never married. She lived with her companion Anita Gunn in the Hampstead Garden suburb of London.



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 that left her with permanent brain damage. By the end of the summer of that year it became clear that her public playing days were over. 


On November 25th, 1965, Hess died at the age of 75 of a heart attack in her London home. A plaque commemorates her at 48 Wildwood Road in Hampstead Garden.

To celebrate the 70th anniversary of Dame Myra Hess's first wartime concert at the National Gallery, the Myra Hess Memorial Concert will take place at the Gallery on October 10, 2019 at 1:00 pm.


Nina Kennedy at the National Gallery


We felt especially close to Myra while we were in London for the last week of our trip. Some of the staff at the National Gallery were not familiar with her name. Nina was happy to educate them, especially since her memorial concert was on the calendar for next month.

Nina's performance of Myra Hess' arrangement of Bach's "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring" can be seen and heard in an upcoming episode of The Noshing with Nina Show.










Enjoy this clip of Dame Myra Hess performing her arrangement of Bach's "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring."




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