I was once very interested in the stories of three English writers—William Sansom, Henry Green, and Stephen Spender—who served in the Auxiliary Fire Service during the height of the Blitz. This was shortly after September 11, 2001, when I spent hours in front of the television in a kind of stupor, watching the same footage over and over, much of it depicting the heroism of firefighters. Sansom, Green, and Spender were curious to me precisely because they did not resemble the firefighters flitting across my screen. For one thing, they were artists—or, in the case of Sansom, whose first short stories came out of his surreal and harrowing experiences battling blazes, artists in the making. They were out of their depth, yet determined to do their part. There were artists, however, who contributed to the war effort in other ways—not by fighting the enemy or putting out fires or joining the ambulance brigade, but by simply doing what they had always done. In the case of the pianist Myra Hess, this meant making music.
One of the great musicians of her time, Hess was born in 1890 to a Jewish family in northwest London. During the Second World War, she postponed her foreign engagements and hunkered down in England, determined to perform where, she felt, music was most needed. This despite all semblance of cultural life in London coming to a halt with the outbreak of war in September 1939. Theaters, museums, and concert halls made for likely targets of any German air attack, so officials took the precaution of closing them down. At the National Gallery, on Trafalgar Square, priceless paintings were boxed up and shipped out, destined for rural Wales and Gloucestershire. People departed, as well, with some 1.5 million (principally children and women) evacuated from London. Blackouts were imposed, food was rationed, and a long period of waiting began, with nobody certain quite when the inevitable German attack would arrive.
During this time of agitation and sinking spirits, Hess persuaded Kenneth Clark, the director of the National Gallery—who himself received dispensation from the government—to open Room 36, an octagonal gallery with a soaring glass dome, for classical music recitals. The idea was to put on a concert every weekday at lunchtime; on Tuesdays and Thursdays, the performances would be repeated at five o’clock. Many of Hess’s eminent friends from the classical music world—the Griller Quartet and the pianist Benno Moiseiwitsch, among them—agreed to appear, though no one performed more than Hess herself. Of the nearly 2,000 concerts held at the Gallery during the war, she was the draw for 150 of them. The atmosphere at these performances was as unstuffy as could be—the audience could munch on sandwiches and move about between movements of a piece. Patrons could sit or stand as they pleased, with the overflowing crowd lined up against the walls. These were people’s concerts in the truest sense.
Even Hess could not have imagined just how popular they would be. She thought that maybe 50 of her friends would show up for the first recital, on October 10, 1939. Instead, 1,000 people were admitted to Room 36, with many more sent home disappointed. Those lucky enough to get in that day saw Hess perform a hefty, substantial program of Scarlatti, Bach, Beethoven, Schubert, Chopin, and Brahms. When she began Beethoven’s Appassionata Sonata—those famous bars with the right-hand trills asking a series of questions and the left hand offering a rumbling, mysterious response, before that cascading and thunderous run down the keyboard—the impact was palpable. As Clark recalled, “It was an assurance that all our sufferings were not in vain. I think the whole audience felt this, for I have never known people to listen so earnestly nor applaud with such a rush of pent-up emotion and gratitude.”
The war finally came to London on September 7, 1940—a sunny Saturday afternoon—when the Germans began their aerial assault, setting the city afire. Throughout the autumn and winter of 1940–41, the bombing continued for 76 nights, with only one day’s interruption. During the entire air campaign, some 30,000 civilians died in London, with many millions forced to seek shelter in the city’s rest centers and in the depths of its tube stations. Tens of thousands of high-explosive and incendiary bombs were dropped, destroying landmarks, leaving craters in the streets, turning houses into burned-out shells, with glass and debris everywhere. Given the damage to railway lines and stations and the state of the impassable roads, transportation was greatly damaged. So too were communications and utilities. And yet, despite it all, the recitals continued—for the next six years, with not one week skipped, though many concerts were necessarily delayed. In all, some 750,000 people attended, forming long lines outside the Gallery each day, many, I imagine, looking up cautiously at the sky, wondering when the sirens would sound.
Indeed, the Gallery was hit by nine bombs in all—once during a performance of Beethoven given by the Stratton Quartet; nobody was hurt, and the musicians continued. Concerts were now moved to the wet and frigid basement, since assembling beneath a glass dome was no longer an option, and an ominous sign warned:
IN CASE OF AIR RAID WARNING THE AUDIENCE WILL PROCEED DOWNSTAIRS WHERE ADEQUATE PROTECTION IS AVAILABLE
With maintenance costs straining the budget, money came in from the likes of Sergei Rachmaninoff and Arturo Toscanini, allowing the concerts to continue, though for Hess, stopping them was never an option. “We are facing the annihilation of everything we hold important,” she said. “And this wonderful opportunity to give spiritual solace to those who are giving all to combat the evil seems, in some mysterious way, to have been given into my hands.” Ironically, though some British music was played, much of the repertoire was Germanic—Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms. Not for Hess the cheap patriotic trick, or the conflation of politics and art. She may have been born a Jew, but she was insistent that great music was great music, irrespective of nationality or ethnicity.
Narrative accounts of the Blitz are filled with stories of bravery and endurance, sometimes to the point of hyperbole. Yet as the historian Francis Sheppard has noted, “despite the sometimes unpalatable myths and legends in which the Blitz has become enshrouded, metropolitan defiance and tenacity were fundamental to the ultimate outcome of the war.” For Hess, music was the greatest act of defiance. I often have to remind myself, when the world seems on the brink of yet another horror, that music is not a luxury, an afterthought to a busy day, a thing to indulge in while donning fancy dress, but rather something constant, necessary, essential, and alive.
Watch Myra Hess perform the first movement of Beethoven’s Appassionata Sonata during a wartime concert at the National Gallery: