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Myra Hess (1945)

Courtesy of Imperial War Museum

Main image of Myra Hess (1945)
35mm, 11 mins, black & white
DirectorHumphrey Jennings
Production CompanyCrown Film Unit
SponsorMinistry Of Information
MusicLudwig Van Beethoven

Music Performance: Myra Hess

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Dame Myra Hess in a lunchtime concert at the National Gallery, playing the opening movement of Beethoven's Piano Sonata in F minor.

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The apparent simplicity of this beautiful little piece comes from what was, by this stage of his career, Humphrey Jennings' huge experience and skill in editing. For example, during the faster passages of Hess's vigorous performance, the shot length decreases precisely in time with the music, while the rate of cutting between long shots, medium shots and close ups of the pianist, her hands on the keyboard, and the audience at the edge of the stage increase. This apparently effortless cutting requires a deep understanding of the film viewing experience.

At the beginning of the war, Myra Hess was already a pianist of international stature, specialising in the great German composers. She had performed in Austria and Germany and travelled widely before the war. When appearing on film, she is usually performing Mozart and Beethoven, for whom she had a special passion and flair and who, for the British during the war, strongly represented a sense of culture and freedom; pointedly allowing the British to publicly demonstrate that they did not have an anti-German racism, and to draw a cultural distinction between themselves and the Nazis.

At the beginning of the war, Hess personally instigated, organised and performed in lunchtime concerts at the National Gallery (one such was filmed by Jennings for 1942's Listen to Britain), the blackout making evening London concerts difficult. By 1945 she had performed hundreds of these concerts, and had been adopted as a much-loved national treasure and a Dame of the British Empire.

Ewan Davidson

Click titles to see or read more

Video Clips
Extract (4:28)
Monthly Film Bulletin review
Diary For Timothy, A (1946)
Jennings, Humphrey (1907-1950)
Crown Film Unit