She was born in London as Julia Myra Hess, and at the age of five began to study the piano. Two years later, she 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 link to jazz, having given lessons in the 1920s 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, starting during the London Blitz. 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. According to Toscanini's biographer, Mortimer Frank, after he and Hess had failed to agree on tempos for Beethoven's Fifth Piano Concerto, they decided instead to perform Beethoven's Third. The 24 November 1946 broadcast concert was preserved on transcription discs and later issued on CD by Naxos.
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's lunchtime concerts influenced the formation of City Music Society.
Last concert and retirement
In September 1961, Hess played her final public concert at London's Royal Festival Hall. She was forced to retire after suffering a stroke in early 1961 while in New York on her annual concert tour in America. Although she courageously fought the debilitating effects of this, by the end of the summer of that year it became clear that her public playing days were over. She continued to teach a handful of students (notably Stephen Bishop-Kovacevich) during her last years.
Chicago Dame Myra Hess Memorial Concerts
In 1977, the Chicago Cultural Center began a series of free lunchtime concerts held at its Preston Bradley Hall every Wednesday from 12:15–1pm, named in Hess's honour as the Dame Myra Hess Memorial Concerts. These are still broadcast live on radio station WFMT and streamed at WFMT.com.
- Reading Eagle newspaper - Heart Attack Brings Death To Myra Hess
- "HESS, DAME MYRA (1890-1965)". English Heritage. Retrieved 2012-08-05.
- International Music Foundation - About Dame Myra Hess
- International Music Foundation - The Dame Myra Hess Memorial Concerts
- Rosenfelder, Ruth. "Dame Myra Hess." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 20 March 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. January 5, 2010