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Hess, Dame (Julia) Myrafree

(1890–1965)

Dame (Julia) Myra Hess (1890–1965)

by Alice Boughton, 1925

Hess, Dame (Julia) Myra (1890–1965), pianist, was born in London on 25 February 1890, the daughter of Frederick Solomon Hess, a textile merchant, and his wife, Lizzie, daughter of John Jacobs, shopkeeper and moneylender of London. She was the youngest of four children of whom the eldest was her only sister. She grew up in a typical Jewish home in north London.

Myra Hess's general education, to her lasting regret, was of the superficial kind then deemed adequate for a young girl. But thanks to her obvious musical talent she was given piano and cello lessons from the age of five. The cello was abandoned when she began more serious study at the Guildhall School of Music, where her teachers were Orlando Morgan (piano) and Julian Pascal (theory). By far the most formative musical influence in her life, however, was that of Professor Tobias Matthay, with whom she studied piano for five years after winning the Ada Lewis scholarship at the Royal Academy of Music in 1903. She always maintained that he was her 'only teacher', and he regarded her as his 'prophetess'.

Hess's official début took place on 14 November 1907, when she gave an orchestral concert at the Queen's Hall in London, conducted by the young Thomas Beecham. She played concertos by Saint-Saëns and Beethoven (the G major, with which she was later so often associated), together with an obligatory group of solos. Newspaper reports of the concert, and of her first solo recital given at the Aeolian Hall two months later, were mainly enthusiastic. Yet engagements came in slowly and were rarely well paid, so for some years her livelihood depended to a large extent on teaching.

Hess's first great success came in the Netherlands in 1912, when she took the place of an indisposed colleague to play the Schumann concerto in A minor with the Concertgebouw Orchestra under Willem Mengelberg. This advanced her career in England, where engagements with music clubs and orchestras steadily increased. Visits abroad became impracticable during the First World War, but on 17 January 1922 she made a highly successful American début with a recital at the Aeolian Hall, New York. Thereafter, up to 1939, she divided each year between a North American tour in the winter, concerts in England and the Netherlands in the spring and autumn, and a working holiday, often in the country, during two summer months.

In the early part of her career Hess played a considerable amount of contemporary music, although even then she tended to favour the classical and Romantic repertory. This, and her abiding lack of interest in virtuosity, might suggest a rather forbidding character. But her strength of character was tempered by graciousness and by an enchanting sense of humour, which bubbled out irresistibly not only in everyday life but also whenever she played a light-hearted Scarlatti sonata or Mozart finale. Moreover, in spite of agonies of nerves before every concert, as soon as she stepped on a platform (a shortish but comfortable-looking woman, invariably dressed in black) her deceptive air of serenity made audiences feel that they were her friends, and that the only thing which mattered was the music they were about to enjoy together.

Myra Hess delighted in taking part in chamber music. In the 1920s she regularly joined the London String Quartet for a week's music-making at the Bradford chamber music festival; in the 1930s she had a sonata partnership with the Hungarian violinist Jelly d'Aranyi; and she appeared at the Casals summer festivals in Perpignan and Prades in 1951 and 1952. More important, and wholly characteristic, was her decision on the outbreak of war in 1939 to cancel an American tour in order to remain in England and organize, and take part in, the remarkable series of daily chamber music concerts which she instituted at the National Gallery in London, with the assistance of Sir Kenneth Clark, the director. They ran uninterruptedly for six and a half years (apart from a short break at the end of the war), were attended by over three-quarters of a million people, and ceased (to her bitter disappointment) only when repairs to the war-damaged gallery became inevitable.

The end of the concerts allowed Myra Hess to resume her regular tours in the Netherlands and the United States where she was greeted as a beloved, long-absent friend, and as one who had served music and her country so selflessly. Audiences sensed, too, that her powers of interpretation had acquired a new simplicity, directness, and depth. Whereas formerly her quest for sheer beauty of sound had sometimes interfered with her sense of musical line, she had now achieved such complete technical control that she could concentrate entirely on the shape and meaning of a work, knowing that her fingers would reproduce exactly what her inner ear dictated. Furthermore, her instinctive understanding of whatever music awakened her love and interest had become unerring.

From the late 1950s Myra Hess became increasingly troubled by arthritis of the hands and severe circulatory problems. Her last concert appearance was on 31 October 1961 at the Royal Festival Hall, London, when she played the Mozart concerto in A major K488 under Sir Adrian Boult. Although she still managed to give occasional lessons to a few gifted pupils, she lacked the physical and mental strength to reorientate her life in a way which might have made retirement tolerable. It was a sad end to a great career. She died at her home, 23 Cavendish Close, St John's Wood, London, on 25 November 1965. She never married.

The gramophone recordings made between 1928 and 1959 give little idea of the quality of Hess's playing. She hated recording and, as Professor Arthur Mendel wrote, 'performance for her was essentially communication to an audience' (Lassimonne and Ferguson, 39). The recording which comes closest to capturing her beauty of tone, human warmth, and deep musical understanding is probably the Beethoven sonata in E major, op. 109, issued in 1954. Of her few publications, immense popularity was achieved by her piano transcription (1926) of the chorale-setting from Bach's cantata no. 147, familiarly known as 'Jesu, joy of man's desiring' (the score of her arrangement is now in the British Library, Add. MS 57486). Few artists have been so closely associated with one piece of music.

For her services to music Myra Hess was appointed CBE (1936), DBE (1941), and commander of the order of Orange-Nassau (1943). She received the gold medal of the Royal Philharmonic Society (1942) and honorary degrees from the universities of Manchester (1945), Durham, London, St Andrews (all 1946), Reading (1947), Cambridge (1949), and Leeds (1951).

Sources

  • D. Lassimonne and H. Ferguson, eds., Myra Hess by her friends (1966)
  • M. C. McKenna, Myra Hess, a portrait (1976)
  • personal knowledge (1981)
  • W. S. Mann, ‘Hess, Dame Myra’, New Grove
  • notebooks of concert engagements, 1907–62, BL, Add. MSS 57730–57731
  • The Times (27 Nov 1965)

Archives

  • BL, notebooks of concert engagements, Add. MSS 57730–57731
  • State Historical Society of Wisconsin, Madison, letters to Edith Frank
  • Tate collection, corresp. with Lord Clark

Film

  • BFINA, documentary footage
  • BFINA, performance footage

Sound

  • BL NSA, ‘Dame Myra Hess talking to James Fassett’, NP4028R BD1
  • BL NSA, documentary recordings
  • BL NSA, ‘Interview’, 7 June 1962, NP8122WR TR1 C2
  • BL NSA, performance recordings
  • BL NSA, recorded talk
  • BL NSA, ‘Servant of the music’, 1977, P12294 TR1

Likenesses

  • J. S. Sargent, charcoal drawing, 1920; on loan to Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
  • A. Boughton, photograph, 1925, NPG [see illus.]
  • H. Coster, photographs, 1930–39, NPG
  • E. Kapp, drawing, 1931, U. Birm.
  • W. Stoneman, photograph, 1957, NPG
  • J. Epstein, bronze bust, Royal Academy of Music, London
  • J. Epstein, plaster bust, North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh

Wealth at Death

£64,768: probate, 18 Feb 1966, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

S. Sadie, ed., , 20 vols. (1980); 2nd edn., 29 vols. (2001)
Calendars of the grants of probate … made in … HM court of probate [England and Wales]