She was born in London as Julia Myra Hess, but was best known by her middle name. At the age of five she began to study the piano and two years later entered the Guildhall School of Music, where she graduated as winner of the Gold Medal. She studied at the Royal Academy of Music under Tobias Matthay. Her debut came in 1907 when she played Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 4 with Sir Thomas Beecham conducting. She went on to tour through Britain, the Netherlands and France. Upon her American debut (New York, 24 January 1922) she became a prime favourite in the United States, not only as a soloist, but also as a fine ensemble player. She also has a surprising link to jazz, having given lessons in the '20s to Ivy Brubeck, mother of Dave Brubeck.
Hess garnered greater fame during World War II when, with all concert halls blacked out at night to avoid being targets of German bombers, she organized what would turn out to be some 1700 lunchtime concerts spanning a period of six years. The concerts were held at the National Gallery, in Trafalgar Square; Hess herself played in 150 of them. For this contribution to maintaining the morale of the populace of London, King George VI awarded her with the Dame Commander of the British Empire (DBE) in 1941; having previously been created a CBE in 1936. Hess makes a brief appearance performing at one of her lunchtime concerts in the 1942 wartime documentary Listen to Britain (directed by Humphrey Jennings and Stuart McAllister).
In 1946, Arturo Toscanini invited Hess to perform with the NBC Symphony Orchestra in New York City. Toscanini biographer Mortimer Frank wrote that, after Toscanini and Hess failed to agree on tempos for Beethoven's fifth piano concerto, they decided to perform Beethoven's third concerto. The 24 November 1946 broadcast concert was preserved on transcription discs and later issued on CD by Naxos.
In 1977, The Chicago Cultural Center began a series of lunchtime concerts every Wednesday at 12:15, named in Dame Myra's honor. These are still broadcast over radio station WFMT and streamed at WFMT.com.
Hess was most renowned for her interpretations of the works of Mozart, Beethoven and Schumann, but had a wide repertoire ranging from Domenico Scarlatti to contemporary works. She gave the premiere of Howard Ferguson's Piano Sonata and his Piano Concerto. She also played a good amount of chamber music, and performed in a piano duo with Irene Scharrer. She promoted public awareness of the piano duo and two-piano works of Schubert.
She arranged the chorale prelude of "Jesus bleibet meine Freude" (known in English as "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring") from Johann Sebastian Bach's Cantata Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben, BWV 147 for piano. Her protégés included Clive Lythgoe and Richard and John Contiguglia. She was a teacher of Steven Kovacevich
Hess' lunchtime concerts influenced the formation of City Music Society.
- Rosenfelder, Ruth. "Dame Myra Hess." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 20 March 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. January 5, 2010
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