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October 2014
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Emerging from “Cultural Black-out”

Evacuating the paintings of London's National Gallery

Evacuating the paintings of London's National Gallery


Dame Myra Hess plays a wartime concert

Live broadcast on Wednesday at 12:00 pm

On Wednesday, October 8, WFMT and the International Music Foundation commemorate the 75th anniversary of the wartime concerts at London’s National Gallery, which served as a beacon for Londoners through the brutal years of WWII. Wednesday’s concert features the Schubert String Quintet played by the Arianna String Quartet with cellist Nicole Johnson.

How it began

Imagine the walls of the National Gallery stripped bare, a city of 8.6 million people shrouded in darkness; theaters, cinemas, museums – all shuttered. As England entered the Second World War, authorities quickly took measures to remove cultural assets, while reducing the potential for civilian casualties by strictly enforcing black-outs and quashing the city’s nightlife. Kenneth Clark, the director of London’s National Gallery called it a “cultural black-out.” Clark recalled the eerie stillness of the National Gallery, “Every picture had been taken away, but the frames remained and multiplied the general emptiness with a series of smaller emptinesses. When I returned to the Gallery, after the first all-absorbing task of evacuation was more or less safely over, I walked round those large, dirty, and (as it turned out) ill-proportioned rooms, in deep depression.”

Mr. Clark didn’t require any arm twisting when the piano soloist Myra Hess suggested using the gallery for occasional lunchtime concerts. It was Clark who suggested making it a daily event, Monday through Friday.

A bombed-out room at London's National Gallery

A bombed-out room at London’s National Gallery



The 1:00 pm concerts would cost a shilling, to be applied to the Unemployed Musicians Fund, and repeated on Tuesdays and Thursdays at 5:00 pm for the price of two shillings. Steinway loaned them a piano, free of charge.

The first concert took place 75 years ago, on October 10, 1939. It came together so quickly that Dame Myra recalled expecting only 40 or 50 people; instead there were around 1,000, with more being turned away at the door. The concerts continued every weekday, even during the 267-day Blitzkrieg. During the daylight bombings, the musicians and public withdrew to the Gallery’s basement. In all, 1,698 concerts were given over a period of five and a half years.


A wartime concert in Room 36 of the National Gallery


For her immeasurable gift to wartime Londoners, King George VI made Myra Hess Dame Commander of the British Empire in 1941. Following the War, Myra Hess resumed her international career. When she died in 1965, Dame Myra Hess left her estate to a fund benefiting young artists, with a requirement that they perform outside metropolitan areas.

It was in that spirit of creating opportunity for young artists, and increasing public access to high quality performances, that Chicago’s Al Booth established the weekly Dame Myra Hess Memorial Concerts, free of charge, at the Chicago Cultural Center.

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