Make music and carry on

This is far from the first time in history that music has come to our rescue. That’s its job. We can take comfort that, time and again, music has been just the thing to lift spirits, to rouse hope, to unite us, and to express our resilience. Over the coming weeks, we’ll be sharing stories here of other significant occasions when music has shone a light in the dark.

If other such occasions come to your mind, do let us know, as we’re on the lookout for more stirring stories to share. Please get in touch.


THE SECOND WORLD WAR CONCERTS

What happened to classical music during the Second World War? RPS Chief Executive James Murphy shares the remarkable story of one woman who kept it going strong.

I’ve long thought this the best ever story in British music – and now there’s good reason to tell it anew.

As the Second World War loomed, the staff of the National Gallery in London were in a fix. They needed to get the paintings away to safety (most ended up hidden in caves in Wales) but this left the building empty and at risk of falling into government use, never to be returned.

Salvation came – as salvation often does – in the form of a musician.

Enter Myra Hess. She was a much-admired pianist, one of the many performers whose entire livelihood – then as now – suddenly evaporated. She suggested to Kenneth Clark, the young director of the National Gallery, that she could perhaps present a ‘few’ concerts there to keep the premises modestly occupied.

She duly presented her first recital at the Gallery on 10 October 1939, days after the Second World War officially began. Expectations were low: they optimistically set out chairs for 50. But music has a remarkable magnetism in times like these, and duly the queue began to build through Trafalgar Square and all the way up Charing Cross Road.

In the end they admitted almost 1000 people to that first recital. They crammed in like sardines to hear Myra play Bach, Beethoven, Schubert, Chopin, Brahms and Scarlatti. A second concert was hastily arranged. And back they came.

Consequently, every single weekday of the Second World War, Myra Hess and her friends presented concerts to more-than-capacity audiences at the National Gallery. Nine times during the Blitz, bombs fell upon or adjacent to the building – twice while concerts were actually happening – but the music never stopped. For a while, they had to locate to the basement and audiences were duly limited, but the band played on. Myra herself accounted one occasion when, amid Schubert’s Impromptu in B flat, ‘I made a tremendous crescendo to cover the noise of a bomb as it flew over the Gallery… it synchronised so completely that no one was conscious of what I had done.’

There were solo performances, chamber music, even orchestras and choirs. Famous artists came and played their part, such as the cellist Beatrice Harrison, conductors Henry Wood, John Barbirolli and Norman del Mar, the comedian Joyce Grenfell, the singers Kathleen Ferrier and Peter Pears, and composers Vaughan Williams, Britten, Tippett, Finzi and Bax, even Poulenc visiting from France. In total, 238 pianists performed, 236 string soloists, 64 woodwind and brass soloists, 157 singers, 24 string quartets, 56 other chamber ensembles, 13 orchestras, 15 choirs and 24 conductors.

Some performances were broadcast on the BBC, and Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth (the Queen Mother) came several times and sat among the audience, as you can see in this remarkable footage courtesy of the British Film Institute:


When the war ended, the paintings could not be returned for some time till the bomb damage was repaired, so the concerts continued till April 1946. All in all, there were 1698 concerts when there needn’t have been any. And almost a million people came.

We cannot go to concerts ourselves right now but, in our confinement, many of us are likely feeling what all those people felt then: that in the hardest times, we need music more than ever. For the consolation it gives us in the moment, but also for reminding us of the good in life that endures. The situation in which we currently find ourselves is unprecedented, but classical music has seen it all before, and a whole lot more. But whatever life has thrown its way, it has kept shining. Music will see us through.