Dame Myra Hess, born on February 25th, 1890 in London, UK is known as a virtuous piano player, if you are interested in purchasing a digital piano you can find more info here. As a concerto pianist, she made a name for herself for playing the works of Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven.
One of the most important moments in her career came during World War II, when, while the Nazi were bombing London, she gave a series of piano concerts to boost the spirit of fellow citizens. As a result of her actions, her name is still associated today with British democracy and pride.
Myra Hess was a child prodigy. The youngest in a Jewish family of four children, she started taking piano and cello lessons at the age of 5 years. At 7, she was enrolled at the Guildhall School of Music where she studied under Dr. Lando Morgan and Julian Pascal.
She graduated from Guildhall with honors at the age of 12, she was awarded the Gold Medal for her academic results, and she received a scholarship for the Royal Academy of Music where she was the pupil of Tobias Matthay, one of the best piano teachers in the country.
Even though she proved to be a skillful piano player, after graduating from college, Myra Hess found it difficult to start her career. She made her debut as a concert pianist at just 17, on November 14th, 1907 at the Aeolian Hall. Her performance brought her momentary recognition from the critics; however, her success was short-lived.
In an attempt to make a livelihood, Hess became a teacher and she devoted her free time to become a chamber musician. During this period of her life, she had the opportunity to play alongside well-known artists such as Fritz Kreisler, Joseph Szigeti, Nellie Melba or Lotte Lehmann. To make herself known to the public, Hess started touring across Europe.
She regained her popularity in the United Kingdom at the end of World War I. To increase her chances of success throughout the world, she traveled to the USA in 1922, where she performed concerts in New York City and all through the country. Her talent was, once again, recognized by the public and the critics alike. The fame she gained in the USA, followed back home.
In 1936, following her return to the United Kingdom, King George V made her Companion of the Order of the British Empire. Five years later, Myra Hess was made Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire and, in 1941, she received the Gold Medal of the Royal Philharmonic Society.
Just before the start of WWII, Dame Hess started touring Europe once again. Now, she was known as a household name because of her vast repertoire that included both classical and contemporary compositions.
When WWII was declared, Hess was touring America. As soon as she received the news of the war, she decided to cancel her engagements and returned home where she started performing concerts in an attempt to boost the morale of Londoners.
The concerts that she organized were seen as a way of standing up to the London Blitz that was plaguing London. Funnily enough, almost all the compositions that Hess and the other musicians that took part in the concerts were playing were written by German and Austrian composers.
Apart from raising the spirits of the public, the concerts organized by Dame Hess also played the role of introducing classical music to a segment of the population that was unfamiliar with this kind of music.
At the end of the war, Hess and her fellow musician friends had given over 1300 concerts. The news of the concerts was met with support from people from all around the world. Music lovers from the United States and Canada raised money and donated them to the cause.
As a sign of her appreciation for this gesture, after the end of the war, Dame Hess returned to America where she continued to give concerts. This is also the period in which she wrote “Jesu, bleibet meine Freude”, an arrangement from Bach’s Cantata No. 147.
Final years and death
In the early ’60s, her health worsened. Since the late 50s, she had suffered from arthritis of the hands as well as from circulatory problems. After a stroke that left her with permanent brain damage, she was no longer able to play in concerts. She played her final concert in October 1961, at Royal Festival Hall.
Because she did not want to give up her passion for music, she returned to teaching. One of her pupils was Stephen Kovacevich. Many of her pupils later rose to fame, including Richard and John Contiguglia and Clive Lythgoe. She also gave lessons to Dave Brubeck’s mother.
She died on November 25th, 1965, in London, as a result of a heart attack. As a way to commemorate her life and career, in 1977, the Chicago Cultural Center put together a series of free concerts that were held weekly at Preston Bradley Hall.
Many biographers of the great Myra Hess point out that her character was an interesting mixture of seriousness and fun. She was disciplined when it came to practicing and learning how to play the piano.
Still, she also had a fun side, as those who met her say that she liked to break social norms. For instance, she is known for smoking in public and telling vulgar jokes. She was a loyal friend and had a great sense of fun when she was offstage. She was good at playing cards and scrabble.
She would always get nervous before a performance. As a result of her inability to control her nerves, she fell into depression. The only way in which she managed to free herself from it was through her innate sense of humor.
Dame Myra Hess is often considered one of the UK’s woman trailblazers. Because of the numerous concerts that she gave during the Nazi bombardments in London, she was able to keep the population’s morale up.
At the time she passed away, Dame Hess was 75 years of age. She died in the comfort of her home. Throughout her life, Dame Hess never got married and she did not have children. She lived with her companion, Anita Gunn in the suburbs of London.
In 1941 she was made Dame Commander of the British Empire by King George VI. His wife, Queen Elisabeth and their children loved music and frequented the concerts that Dame Hess played at the National Gallery.
She rose to fame because of her beautiful interpretations of Beethoven, Bach, Brahms, Mozart, and Schuman. Apart from being a concerto pianist, she also enjoyed playing chamber music.
During her first tour through Europe, she also made a stop in Holland. Her talents were greatly appreciated in this country. Even more so, given her success in Holland, Dame Hess returned to the country numerous times.
As a child, just like her siblings, the pianist was taught how to play the cello, as well as the piano. However, she soon showed no interest in the cello and continued to play the piano long after her siblings grew bored or tired of the instrument.
She made her debut in 1907 in the UK, and in 1922 in the US. It took many years before she was acknowledged as a great piano player. Still, her debut was appraised by both critics and the public.
In 1946, she was invited by Arturo Toscanini to perform in with the NBC Symphony Orchestra. The concert was recorded and distributed later by the Naxos Records.
After her death, on the 25th of December 1965, a plaque that commemorates her life and achievements was installed at her address in Hampstead Garden.
Numerous video recordings of Dame Hess playing the piano, including Bach’s “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” can be found online.
Even though she was born into a Jewish family, her family had a particular interpretation of Jewish practice. For example, they used to eat meat, except pork and ham, but they prohibited traveling during Sabbath.
Also, they did not allow her to ride a bike during the Sabbath. Later in life, Myra Hess rejected Judaism because the religion was incompatible with her life as a musician that often had to travel. She developed an interest in Christianity, but she never converted.
She never liked recording her piano playing. Instead, she enjoyed performing live to an audience.