This afternoon I had the pleasure of watching ‘Admission: One Shilling’, at Bishopsgate Institute. I’ll write more about the Institute (well worth visiting for a number of reasons) in a future post, but today I want to focus on this slight, but incredibly moving, slice of theatre.
Wartime brings out the best, as well as the worst, in people – and the subject of this play is Myra Hess and her famous wartime National Gallery concerts. For those of you who aren’t familiar with her extraordinary story, Dame Myra Hess was an internationally-acclaimed pianist who, early on in World War II and lamenting a “dearth of entertainment”, teamed up with the National Gallery to host a series of concerts to which all members of the public were invited.
Dame Myra Hess is played by one of Britain’s best-loved actresses, Dame Patricia Routledge. Beloved for her work on screen and stage, what’s less well-known is that Routledge is a classically-trained singer. She was ten years old when the war began – and, in one of those quirks of fate you couldn’t make up, saw Myra Hess give a wartime performance at Liverpool Philharmonic Hall. That day, she says, remains “etched in her mind”.
‘Admission: One Shilling’ was compiled by Myra’s great-nephew, composer Nigel Hess, from Myra’s press and radio interviews during WWII. It is interspersed with short piano pieces by Bach, Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, Schumann and Chopin – performed by Piers Lane, the acclaimed soloist. In another quirk of fate, Lane studied with Yonty Solomon, one of Hess’s few students – and directed the National Gallery’s Myra Hess Day from 2006-2013; Patricia Routledge was in the audience at the first event.
Perhaps most movingly of all, the piano on which Piers Lane performs is Myra Hess’s own 1927 Rosewood Steinway Model D Grand Pianoforte, which has resided at Bishopsgate Institute for over 50 years and is known, affectionately, as ‘Myra’. The play itself is performed in a simple setting comprising an armchair, a coffee table and a decanter of whisky – with the piano very much the star of the show.
Patricia Routledge is undoubtedly a national treasure and it’s a shock when she comes on stage supported by a stick (not part of the role), but then she is 89; we can consider ourselves lucky that she still feels that urge to perform.
Once seated, Routledge and Lane take us on an absorbing journey through the conception and execution of Myra Hess’s wartime odyssey – accompanied by a backdrop of insightful black & white photos which demonstrate the incredible impact Hess’s concerts had. Cocooned in the 21st century, it’s easy to forget that not so long ago few people had regular access to classical music performances.
At Hess’s very first concert, over 1,000 people queued around Trafalgar Square for tickets. So unexpected was this reaction that Myra and her team hadn’t enough money to provide change…but somehow they prevailed. “This was our antidote to the prevailing death and destruction”, she recalls.
How can we even begin to imagine what living in London then would have been like? Hess’s stories bring that period to life, as she notes how she “played while the bombs dropped”. Terrifying though that must have been, she continued to perform to a packed house; music was needed as never before.
The photos of the queues for admission and the expectant faces of the audience members are a poignant glimpse into a time gone by. Hess’s anecdotes (and Routledge’s delivery of them) are wonderful, too: so popular proved Hess’s lunchtime concerts that the National Gallery installed a canteen, in which no other than Joyce Grenfell appeared, this close friend of Hess busily buttering bread for sandwiches.
In the midst of the Blitz bombardment, there were other amusing moments: competition from St Martin’s in the Fields’ bells, which rang on the dot every day at 1.25pm – as well as from military bands, playing in Trafalgar Square to drum up funds for the war effort. Through it all, Hess and her fellow musicians played on, dogged in their determination that art would prevail over hate.
Myra Hess was made a Dame in 1941 and continued to perform, her goal being to make classical music available to as many people as possible. Between them, Patricia Routledge and Piers Lane deliver Myra’s thoughts on her wartime experiences in a way that is emotional but never overly so: much like Myra Hess herself, I suspect.