Admission: One Shilling

Lichfield Garrick

****

DAME Myra Hess was one of those little known, quintessentially English treasures our nation once used to produce.

Her debut as a celebrated concert pianist came in 1907 playing Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No 4 with Sir Thomas Beecham conducting when she was just 17.

She toured Europe and the USA and, by all accounts, was quite a formidable lady when was declared in 1939.

For various reasons including the danger of light attracting German bombers and the great and the good concentrated together as an easy target the Government closed all concert halls for the duration.

This had serious consequences for professional musicians – after all concerts were their livelihood – and also deprived the nation of classical music.

Myra Hess would have none of that; she described it as a cultural blackout, and so started one of the lesser-known acts of glorious defiance of the war.

Hess had written to the BBC to complain about their content – “all we seem to get is Sandy McPherson”.

Canadian-born theatre organist McPherson, incidentally, was playing up to 12 hours a day on the BBC at the start of the war.

IDEA FORMED

An idea formed to use the National Gallery where every picture had been taken away for safe keeping while, bizarrely; every picture frame was left in place.

And so on Tuesday, October 10, 1939 Myra Hess, having badgered the Government for special permission, put on a lunchtime concert at the Gallery.

She said that the limit had been set at 200 people, she was hoping for 40-50. More than a thousand turned up with long queues outside when the doors closed on 850.

Star names played willingly for token fees, admission was a shilling with proceeds going to the Musicians’ Benevolent Fund.

When the war ended there had been 1,698 lunchtime concerts, Hess had organised each one and performed in 150. Audiences had been up to 1,750 and more than three quarters of a million people, many of who had never been to a classical concert before, had attended.

A tea room had been started and Hess’s friend Joyce Grenfell could often be seen “spreading margarine” on the sandwiches as the weekday lunchtime concerts became an industry, bringing music to the masses.

END OF THE WAR

At the end of the war Hess said: “If I had died on the day peace was declared I would have thought my life was complete.”

Patricia Routledge brings the words of Myra to life in this beautifully staged production. Hess left no diaries or documentary record of her concerts so her thoughts and words have been gleaned from her few letters during the war, radio and newspaper interviews and the few words recorded by the BBC before her broadcast performances.

The worlds and story have been but together by her great nephew, composer and conductor, Nigel Hess and despite the sparse material in the hands of Miss Routledge, her words are turned into a fascinating story.

In between internationally acclaimed concert pianist Piers Lane plays pieces from the 150 lunchtime concerts performed by Myra herself.

The show, like the story of her almost 1,700 lunchtime concerts, is a hidden gem

Roger Clarke 

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