A formidable Dame Patricia Routledge as the formidable Dame Myra Hess

It came as something of a shock to me to discover that Dame Patricia Routledge is now 92 years old. She is much shorter than one imagines, given the massive impression she often makes on television. She now needs a cane, but you sense could probably do without it in other circumstances. Somehow, television neutralises your view of an actor’s or actress’s age; you watch something today and just never realise it was made thirty years ago; it feels immediate and contemporary. It was perhaps under these circumstance that one might forgive the occasional lapses of memory, even though she was reading from a script; the tripping over words. It mattered not one iota because the Routledge on stage was magnificent. That voice full of character; the presence extraordinary in its vividness. It had a lifetime of theatricality rippling through it. One was reminded of her Alan Bennett monologues which drew you in because of their powerful sense of communion. As with all great actresses this was a masterclass in art rather than just technique.

Impersonation might well be the wrong word – we certainly never got to hear her voice – but a character was presented of another formidable woman: Dame Myra Hess. As Routledge pointed out, Hess never wrote an autobiography so much of what we heard comes from letters, journals and reminisces. It made for enormously fascinating – and often very humorous listening as told by Routledge. (I wish I could remember the line about nuns – it was absolutely priceless.)

A pianist of some stature, Hess was born in London in 1890. She played – largely it seems Beethoven – under some of the most eminent (and tyrannical) conductors of the twentieth century: Thomas Beecham, who conducted her in the Beethoven Fourth for her first concert, and Toscanini after the war in what was supposed to have been the ‘Emperor’, but neither could agree on tempo, so instead they played the Third. Apparently, Hess was her own woman – but we already knew this.

Most of us today – because of the Pandemic – will be familiar with a certain level of cultural deprivation, especially when it comes to live concerts. This began almost immediately at the beginning of the Second World War in Britain but on a much more industrial scale: pictures were removed from galleries (although their empty frames remained on the walls), concerts and recitals were abandoned, and broadcasts on the radio were non-existent. Just a week into this cultural desert Hess wrote a sharply worded letter to the BBC lamenting the dearth of cultural life in Britain. She got nowhere (sound familiar?), so approached the then director of the National Gallery, Sir Kenneth Clarke, with an idea: weekly lunchtime concerts. What he thought would be one or two a week she conceived to be five and so began what would by the end of war end up being almost 1700 lunchtime concerts, song recitals and performances by string quartets. Their popularity was basically in that order – some things haven’t changed that much in the many decades since.

The price was set at one shilling and Hess was so convinced it would be a failure she played the first concert herself expecting no more than fifty people would attend – mostly her friends. More than 1800 turned up, snaking around the National Gallery, many of whom had to be turned away and many of those who did get in had to sit on the floor. There was no change to give to the first in the line, so someone was sent off to the nearest bank to get enough money to give change. Despite the National Gallery being bombed nine times during the war, not one concert was ever cancelled and only one ever took place outside of it – when a bomb was discovered in the gallery. The only interruption came from the bells in St Martin’s in the Fields which rang at 1.30pm each day for five minutes. Eventually Hess persuaded them to cut this to three minutes until the Home Office finally banned bellringing entirely.

That scourge of concerts – the rustling of anything remotely to do with eating was also a problem in the 1940s it seems. Although being lunchtime concerts these were sandwich wrappings. Hess and some other formidable women – let’s just assume they all were – came up with the idea of a canteen which also proved hugely popular: the actress Joyce Grenfell would come in daily to make sandwiches, all the profits of which would go to the Musician’s Benevolent Fund.

This is mostly the story that Patricia Routledge tells us. Hess’s extraordinary achievement wasn’t just funded by Londoners – it was often on the brink of financial ruin. Were it not for the support of American musicians like Heifetz, Horowitz and Toscanini these concerts may well have not survived the war in the format they did. Hess gave almost 150 of them and never took a fee at all – but she had to pay other artists. The story that Routledge tells is very much in two halves and there is an element of elegy to the second half. Hess crammed so much of her life and achievements into the first half of her life that after the war it almost felt like an anti-climax for her. There was a small tour of America where her popularity was high after her wartime efforts. But the story Routledge tells is really of retirement, of living in the countryside, of poetic descriptions of flowers – almost everything a great pianist doesn’t want to be. It’s true that Hess did become ill; she would suffer a stroke that made it difficult for her to play the instrument. But she would become a successful teacher in the last stage of her life.

The program was interspersed with piano works which Hess had played during her wartime concerts – by Schubert, Brahms, Chopin, Beethoven and her Bach arrangements. Her repertoire was not in any sense radical – far from it and nor was it particularly challenging based on the works played. Piers Lane didn’t especially add detail to any of these works – and his pedalling was too harsh for my taste. Various images had been displayed during the program on the wall behind the piano – of Hess at different stages of her career, of inside the gallery during recitals, of bombed areas of London – and it had begun with Chamberlain’s speech declaring war on Germany.

This will be remembered for Patricia Routledge giving us an insight into the life and career of a formidable and impressive woman. It is not unlike Strauss’s Enoch Arden, a narrative work also for voice and piano, but it lacks that works consistent melodrama and classical format. If they share any common ground it is they require high calibre narrators; with One Shilling Routledge at least supplied that in spades.

Marc Bridle

Dame Patricia Routledge as Dame Myra Hess (narrator), Piers Lane (pianist)
Wigmore Hall, London; Saturday 11th December 2021.