“For me, the Steinway piano alone can create the illusion of singing.”
Julia Myra Hess was born on February 25, 1890 in Kilburn, London. She began playing the piano at five. Two years later, she entered the Guildhall School of Music, where Hess graduated as winner of the Gold Medal. She later 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 City, 24 January 1922) she became a prime favorite 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 Elizabeth Ivy Brubeck, mother of Dave Brubeck.
Hess garnered greater fame during the Second World War when, with all concert halls blacked out at night to avoid being targets of German bombers, she organized what would turn into almost 2,000 lunchtime concerts spanning a period of six years during the London Blitz. The concerts were held at the National Gallery, in Trafalgar Square, with Hess herself playing 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 Order of the British Empire (DBE) in 1941.
Hess began her lunchtime concerts a few weeks after the commencement of the Second World War. They were presented weekdays, Monday through Friday, for six-and-a-half years without fail. If London was being bombed, the concert was moved to a smaller, safer room. Every artist was paid 5-guineas no matter who they were. In all, Hess presented 1,968 concerts seen by over 800,000 people. Hess' lunchtime concerts influenced the formation of the City Music Society.
Hess was most renowned for her interpretations of Mozart, Beethoven and Schumann. 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.
In 1926 and 1934 she famously arranged for solo piano and for two pianos, the chorale Wohl mir, daß ich Jesum habe from Bach's Cantata Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben, BWV 147. Her protégés include Clive Lythgoe, Richard and John Contiguglia, and Leah Labos between 1941 and 1944. She was also a teacher of Stephen Kovacevich.
Hess died at the age of 75 of a heart attack in her home in London. A blue plaque commemorates her at the Hampstead Garden Suburb.