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Myra’s musical legacy

24 January, 2020 — By The Xtra Diary

Dame Myra Hess

THE extraordinary story of pianist Myra Hess came to mind this week as St Martin-in-the-Fields, that glorious James Gibbs-designed church overlooking Trafalgar Square, geared up to celebrate the 70th year of providing free lunchtime concerts.

Hess grew up in South Hampstead and started playing the piano aged five. She went on to study at the Guildhall and the Royal Academy and became a celebrated concert pianist; but she really found fame for her work during the dark days of the Second World War.

With concert halls blacked out because of the Blitz, Dame Myra, as she would become, looked for other ways to keep musicians working and raise the morale of the people of the capital. She struck upon the idea of lunchtime concerts – and would go on to organise almost 2,000 of them.

Held at the National Gallery and St Martin’s, they ran every weekday for six-and-a-half years, without a performance being missed.

Musicians received a flat rate of five guineas, no matter how famous they were, and a faithful tally of concert-goers was kept. Some 824,152 tickets were used during the period.

Free lunchtime concerts at St Martin-in-the-Fields

Her efforts were recorded in the Humphrey Jennings documentary Listen to Britain, while her fame continues today in unlikely places: the smash-hit West End play Noises Off includes the line from the director who tells a character that his inability to take stage directions is like “Myra Hess playing through the air raids”.

Made a Dame for her work, she came to epitomise the brave and resolute nature of those facing down the bombers.

The concerts hosted by the National Gallery finally ended in 1946 but continued at St Martin’s, where they remain to this day, now taking place on Mondays, Tuesdays and Fridays, all at 1pm. The visitor numbers are still impressive, with around 38,000 people enjoying 170 concerts each year.

Sarah Jackson of St Martin’s told Diary Dame Myra’s legacy was kept alive through the recitals, adding: “We are proud to be working with renowned music schools and conservatoires such as Royal Academy of Music, Royal College of Music, Guildhall School of Music and Drama and Trinity Laban Conservatoire, who allow us to welcome some of the country’s most outstanding young musicians at the beginning of their careers.

“We are delighted by what the lunchtime concerts have achieved in bringing audiences together and making music accessible for everyone. We hope this tradition will continue for many years to come.”

Diary’s readers will no doubt join us in congratulating St Martin’s for keeping her idea alive­ and remembering a pianist who wouldn’t let the Luftwaffe win.

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