Dame Patricia Routledge celebrates Myra Hess and her World War II concerts

Photograph by Hattie Miles
Photograph by Hattie Miles

As Chichester’s Dame Patricia Routledge says, if she hadn’t herself seen Myra Hess perform, she probably wouldn’t be celebrating her now.

Dame Patricia teams up once again with pianist Piers Lane to offer Admission One Shilling (Saturday, April 6, Capitol Theatre, Horsham).

The show tells the story of Myra Hess’s famous wartime National Gallery concerts.

Through spoken word interspersed with piano music by Bach, Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, Schumann and Chopin, audiences will get the chance to hear how the ‘great adventure’ of the lunchtime concerts began and how they continued while bombs rained down on London.

Dame Patricia recalls: “Piers Lane, who is a great international pianist, set up a Myra Hess day at the National Gallery to celebrate the concerts that she initiated and played for eventually six and a half years. They began in London during the Second World War while the bombs fell. They were lunchtime concerts and cost a shilling.

“At the beginning of the Second World War, the government closed down museums and galleries and picture houses and theatres, anywhere that could take a direct hit on a large number of people, so people were starved of morale-boosting entertainment of any kind.

“The great Myra Hess thought ‘What can I do about this?’ She realised that people needed some spiritual nourishment and she thought that some lunchtime concerts somewhere would be a good idea. They were set up with the support and encouragement of the great Sir Kenneth Clark who was the curator of the National Gallery, and they were an immediate success.

“She was much loved. She was well established by then, and that was very much in her favour. I saw and heard her play later, in about 1944-45 in Liverpool. Not only did she play the London concerts, but she went to other distressed bombed-out cities. I saw and heard her play a couple of times. It was her gift that made her special, her sensitivity, her whole demeanour.”

So Dame Patricia was interested to see Piers’ celebration of her: “And somebody in the audience at his first Myra Hess day said that Myra Hess was with us in the audience. He said she can’t be, but the member of the audience said: ‘She is there!’ And it turned out they meant me!

“Now, I don’t look like Myra Hess, but I do think we have the same cut, so I took it as a wonderful compliment. And Piers being Piers thought perhaps we could do something together about those wonderful wartime concerts.

“We got together with Nigel Hess, Myra’s great nephew, and we had the most wonderful work session, getting the script together. Nigel got the information together, and it is made up of her letters, reported conversations and so on. I was thrilled to be asked to be part of it. I do insist I am not impersonating her. That’s why I read. I know most of it by now, but I do read the text rather than coming on and trying to be her.

“If you ask do I attempt to be her, the answer is no, but so strong is the personality that I do feel that she does take over.”

It is fascinating to get a sense of the woman she was: “She was a great woman with a great sense of humour. She was quite mischievous in many ways. I have come to know her niece, and she has told me the most wonderful things about her aunt.”

The performance lasts about one hour. It has been devised by Nigel Hess and is directed by Christopher Luscombe.

Call 01403 750220.

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