“Music is a moral law. It gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, a charm to sadness, and life to everything. It is the essence of order, and leads to all that is good, just and beautiful, of which it is the invisible, but nevertheless dazzling, passionate, and eternal form.”

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Dame Myra Hess: Pianistic Heroine

     Readers of this blog will have noticed references to Tobias Matthay, distinguished British pianist and pedagogue.
Tobias Matthay
His scientific investigations into piano technique brought to him both distinction and controversy. He was perhaps the first to explore the role of the forearm as applied to the piano, although there are those of us who think he came upon this principle too late in life to fully understand its potential. 

    My favorite Matthayism is the title of one of his books, The Visible and Invisible in Piano Playing. Even without reading the book, the title itself conveys a very important concept—what we see is not necessarily what we get. Whatever the merits of his ideas, he was a much sought after teacher and some very successful pianists with major careers passed through his studio. Among them were York Bowen, Myra Hess, Clifford Curzon, Moura Lympany, Eunice Norton, Lytle Powell, Irene Scharrer, Lilias Mackinnon, Guy Jonson, Vivian Langrish and Harriet Cohen. One of my teachers at USC was collaborative pianist Gwendolyn Koldofsky, also from Matthay's studio. She enjoyed a fine performing career working with the likes of Lotte Lehmann, Hermann Prey and Marilyn Horne.
Dame Myra Hess
  I'm thinking now of Dame Myra Hess, heroine of the London concert scene during WWII. Hess sensed the need to boost morale in London at the start of the war, "as nothing was going on." So, she initiated concerts that were presented Monday through Friday at the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square. Even during the German Blitz, the concerts continued without fail, although they moved to a smaller, safer room. The schedule continue for more than six years, throughout the entire war. There were in all 1,968 concerts heard by 824,152 people. Hess appeared in 152 of them. Listen here to what is "not an interview," but rather a ten minute portion of a conversation with her recorded by radio commentator Jim Fassett in 1952. I think it is a wonderful portrait of a remarkable woman. There is another, more extensive interview from 1963. Once when asked by a reporter why she played from the score in a concerto performance, Dame Myra snapped back, "well, the band has theirs, why shouldn't I have mine." This alone has endeared her to me forever.

     Hess was noted for her interpretations of Mozart, Beethoven and Schumann, though she had a large repertoire, including new works. There are numerous recordings available, one of my favorites being this live performance of the Brahms D Minor concerto with Dmitri Mitropolous.

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