About Dame Myra Hess

On September 3, 1939, England declared war on Germany. All theaters, cinemas, concert halls, and museums in London were closed for the duration.

Within weeks, feeling that the British people were being deprived of music, Myra Hess, one of the world's great pianists, convinced the government to allow her to start a daily recital series at the National gallery in central London. With all the paintings and sculptures removed from the galleries, Myra hess opened the first concert on October 10, 1939.

Throughout the Blitz and the bombings of London, the concerts continued every day, Monday through Friday, until August 10, 1946. During daylight bombings, the public and musicians had to retire to the basement of the National Gallery.

It would be impossible to measure the importance of these concerts to the public as well as to the performers. Over the five and a half years the concerts lasted, 1,698 performances were given and 700 different musicians (exclusive of ensembles, choirs, and orchestras) participated, with some 824,000 audience members attending.

During these years, Myra Hess abandoned her international career, because she felt it was more important to the war effort to have live concerts to help boost the morale of the people. She could have stayed in the United States where she was a popular and renowned pianist. After the war, she resumed her concertising throughout the world.

Myra Hess was made a Dame of the British Empire after the war for her outstanding service to the nation.She died on November 25, 1965, leaving her estate to benefit young artists, stipulating that performances take place anywhere in the United Kingdom other that in major cities.

The Dame Myra Hess Tradition continues in Chicago

Myra Hess said of her founding of the National Gallery concert series in wartime London: "I have felt again and again that music was available almost exclusively for a privileged section of the community; and I have wondered how it would be possible to reach the many thousands of potential music-lovers, who were surely to be found outside this limited world of concert-goers. Though it seemed so impossible, I longed to throw open the doors to the very best music, at a price which all would be able to afford. [With the National Gallery Series] my dream of providing chamber music has come true, and I have had the added joy of seeing the importance of these concerts to many young artists starting out in their careers."

These sentiments inspired Al Booth, President Emeritus if the International Music Foundation, to work toward the creation of a similar series in Chicago as a performance opportunity for young artists and a chance for everyone to hear high quality music, free of charge.

On October 20, 1977, the first concert of Chicago's Dame Myra Hess Memorial Concert series took place in the magnificently restored Preston Bradley Hall of the newly re-opened Chicago Public Library Cultural Center. For a period of 14 years, Talman Home Federal Savings and Loan Association sponsored the series, then from 1991 until 1998, Kraft Foods took over the sponsorship. LaSalle Bank was the generous supporter of the series from January 1999 to April 2008.

From the beginning, the concerts have been presented free of charge each week before live audiences of 500. In addition, they are broadcast live over WFMT-FM radio and Channel 25 TV in Chicago.

More than 1,200 artists have appeared on the series over the course of the past 27 years.Many have been prize winners from such competitions as the Tchaikovsky, Naumburg, Van Cliburn, Leeds, Chopin, and Rubenstein. Others were recommended by Lord Menuhin, Claudio Abbado, Alfred Brendel, and Leonard Slatkin.

Today in Chicago, the tradition of the Dame Myra Hess continues each week, produced by the International Music Foundation, and presented by the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs. In addition to our generous sponsor, we are grateful to the Union League Club of Chicago who provide visiting artists' accommodation.
This biography was most recently edited by...
sbarnebey - 12 Dec 2009