Dame Julia Myra Hess- the war pianist who boosted London’s morale during the Blitz

Myra Hess was awarded the DBE in 1941 for initiating the lunch-time concerts in the National Gallery - Hulton Archive
Myra Hess was awarded the DBE in 1941 for initiating the lunch-time concerts in the National Gallery - Hulton Archive

To celebrate 100 years since British women were given the right to vote, The Telegraph - alongside the Mayor of London's #BehindEveryGreatCityCampaign - is running a weekly series.

'Hidden Credits' will look back and celebrate individual women who have smashed glass ceilings, helped change society for the better and given the UK's capital something to boast about.

In a time when London was facing one of its most treacherous periods, it was Dame Julia Myra Hess’s  musical talent, as well as her unwavering passion, that provided the capital with the morale boosting musical concerts it so desperately needed.

The Blitz, which devastated almost a third of the city, meant that it had become increasingly difficult for many to find any sort of escape from the hardships and heartbreak of the Second World War. Moreover, the chaos meant that London’s social scene all but ground to a halt. There was little opportunity for people to find respite from the distress of the conflict.

It was Hess - a British pianist, who had made her on-stage debut aged just 17 - who helped to ‘spur on the willpower’ of the London’s citizens during the anarchy of war.

Dame Julia Myra Hess - Credit: Hulton Archive
By the time she reached 12, Hess had gained a scholarship to study at the Royal Academy of Music Credit: Hulton Archive

Determined not to be hindered by Britain’s uncertain future, she used her status as one of the most prominent pianists of the time - having built a career over three decades of extensive world tours - to organise low cost lunchtime concerts for the public at London’s National Gallery.

Overall, Hess conducted 1,860 showcases that spanned the whole of the war. The aim?

“To give spiritual solace to those who are giving all to combat the evil”

Hess was the youngest of four siblings, born February 25, 1890 in North London. From the age of five, she showed musical talent and by the time she reached 12, had gained a scholarship to study at the Royal Academy of Music.

Her wartime showcases were immensely popular and performances enthralled audiences - 824,000 people attended in all. Hess, still the active pianist herself, played in 150 of the concerts herself.

Kenneth Clark, Director of the National Gallery during the Second World War, described the people who attended the concerts as ‘Young and old, smart and shabby, Tommies in uniform with their tin hats strapped on, old ladies with ear trumpets, musical students, civil servants, office boys, busy public men; all sorts had come.’

For this contribution to maintaining the morale of the populace of London, King George VI awarded Hess the Dame Commander of the British Empire (DBE) in 1941 in recognition of her wartime service.

(She had previously been awarded a CBE in 1936). Additionally, she received honorary degrees from universities of Manchester, Durham, London, St andrews, Reading, Cambridge and Leeds.

Dame Myra Julia Hess - Credit:  HULTON ARCHIVE
Her wartime showcases were immensely popular - 824,000 people attended in all. Hess, played in 150 of the concerts herself Credit: HULTON ARCHIVE

Her concerts concluded a year after the war ended. Meanwhile Hess was just as triumphant - the Fifties was her best era. The recordings that exist of her performances of the time - including live Brahms' B-Flat Concerto with Bruno Walter in 1951 - were considered ‘her finest on record’ by many musicians of the time.

Hess’s last performance was in October 1961, aged 71. She was suffering with circulatory problems and arthritis, and died four years later.

Since then, Hess has been commemorated with her own blue plaque in North London. Remembered as more than just a musician, but as a woman who used her talent to unite the capital and keep-up the spirits of many, in a time that looked undeniably bleak.