Hello there Bazlings! It’s been a fair old while but be assured Baz is never far from our hearts or minds, and we are never not walking with Baz in our step. So, we thought we’d return with an old favourite; the Spotlights! We love discovering and sharing our most important influences, movements, performers and schools of thought with you, and this time we have a Spotlight-ee that we think, ought to be remembered both with emotion, appreciation and respect.
Myra Hess, British pianist and, it would be fair to say, music philanthropist is the embodiment of what we feel about music, what we put in our mission statements, our work. Diehard fans (shoutout, fam. Is…that what the kids say?) will remember our intensive and rewarding process with Cello and music queen Laura Moody in both iterations of 2016’s dreamplay, where her haunting, beautiful melodies inspired by the piece sang out quite literally over the waves at Aldeburgh at High Tide, and bounced off the concave, yet seemingly never ending epic corridor of the Vaults. Music is a language all of its own, and language can be performed. Without opening her mouth or using her voice, Hess comforted and gave hope to thousands of Londoners in her unique and long-lasting way - and through it, fully explored the idea of a communion with an audience.
British pianist Myra Hess was born at the very end of the 19th century, and lived through two World Wars. She trained at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama and became a very well-resepected Pianist on the classical performer circuit. Impressive enough to achieve all this as a woman of merit and skill in the early 20th century - respected both here and across the pond in the Big Apple, but it was what she did next that would solidify her status as a philanthropist and historically important figure in music and outreach.
At the age of 55, Myra Hess, more used to playing the fine halls of Royal Albert Hall or the Royal Festival variety, launched a series of free concerts in the next best venue - the National Gallery. Throughout the War, the blitz, the Battle of Britain, for six and a half years, without fail, she gave a free concert in the galleries of the biggest art insitutions in London. They ran every Monday to Friday, and when the bombing was especially close, they moved the concerts to the bowels of the building, but they were never missed. Hess herself performed 150 of these concerts herself, and as a talented arranger, providing many transcriptions of Bach and Beethoven in her lifetime Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring was by far her most popular.
Through these concerts,she provided a safe haven in art and expression, a kind of meditation that took away from the anxiety and fear that must have permeated London in a very trying time. Much like Vera Lynn’s We’ll Meet Again, Gracie Fields meeting the troops, or in later years, the adoption of You’ll Never Walk Alone as a unifying moment for the country, or just the group of people you are with, music and performance, as a communion, can heal. For us at Baz, the nameless, ancient-yet-present feeling of trust, even comfort between audience and performer is what we strive for, in it’s purest and most undiluted form.
Myra received a damehood by King George VI for ‘maintaining morale’ in Wartime, and her legendary concerts eventually evolved became the City Music Society, an important musical organisation that still runs today. Myra did do a lot for morale and spirits, it’s true - but she also single-handedly elevated the form of performance, gave back, and gave a way in to classical music, for so long held on a higher pedestal by the elite - and made it available to all. She presented nearly 2,000 concerts for over 8,000 people - a true visionary and inspiration.
She of course went on to tour the world and be appreciated in her time, providing more arrangements and transcriptions from Mozart to Scarlatti and became even more regarded in her field, invited by composer and conductor Arturo Toscanini to perform with the NBC Orchestra in 1946. After suffering a stroke in her later years, she taught a handful of students before her peaceful passing in 1965. She is still remembered as a true patron of the arts as well as a distinguished performer herself, with her fingering credited to her on many piano sheet music learned today.
This North London Jewish girl gave some respite and relief to many during an impossibly fractious and difficult time, and she did it with her talent and her love for music. It was fantastic of the National Gallery to agree to hold these concerts, as an unusual venue, but we bet, sitting in one of the refined galleries, where there’s meant to be only contemplative, individual silence, the most vibrant, powerful joining of community was occurring, as the angels and cherubs looked on.
Cheers, Myra. You’re a top bird in Baz’s Book.