The National Gallery concerts in Wartime London: a vignette from the Rosenberg collection

Attending the Myra Hess Day at the National Gallery earlier this month and listening to Ida Haendel’s sparkling performance of Schumann, Enescu and Sarasate was an extraordinary experience.  Miss Haendel had played in three of Myra Hess‘s National Gallery concerts during WWII and it was as if time had stood still. At any moment I expected air-raid sirens to go off (not that we would have taken any notice, the music being the focus of attention) followed by the sound of anti-aircraft fire and the whine and crump of bombs.

We were assembled in the magnificent Barry Rooms at the Gallery, the venue for the original concerts rather than the cramped basement shelter where concerts were given throughout the Blitz. It set me thinking about musical life in the capital during the War years and the supreme achievement that the National Gallery concerts were in providing a lunchtime recital every weekday no matter what the circumstances. During the months of the Blitz audiences and performers alike made their way to the Gallery through the debris of the previous night’s bombardment.  Not even the presence of an unexploded bomb, which was discovered in the Gallery on 18th October 1940, deterred concert-goers.  They and the Menges Quartet simply moved elsewhere in the building for the concert whilst Bomb Disposal got on with their job.

National Gallery Concerts : programme 16th Jully 1942

National Gallery Concerts : programme 16th July 1942

I remembered that the University Library has in its concert programme archives a collection of programmes donated by Lily Marian Rosenberg which cover the period.  She often attended the National Gallery concerts and, getting back to my desk later in the week, I brought up the box file and began to look through to see which concerts Mrs. Rosenberg had attended.  There are too many programmes to list individually, but this selection of a dozen gives a flavour (curiously none features Myra Hess):

January 1st 1942: A Bach concert, including the famous B minor flute suite played by Joseph Slater and the Ebsworth String Quartet and the Peasant Cantata.

February 13th 1942: Schubert this time. A piano recital by Peter Stadlen, including the A major sonata.

March 12th 1942: Piano trios by Schubert and Mozart played by the Harry Isaacs Trio

April 2nd 1942: a performance of Haydn’s Seven Last Words given by the Griller Quartet. There is also a rare programme note by Howard Ferguson

April 10th 1942: Beethoven string quartets by the Menges Quartet.  It is noted on the programme as the 45th in a series of Beethoven programmes to include all the piano and chamber works.  Further, that the cycle of quartets would be repeated.

June 19th 1942: Dea Gombrich and Susi Jeans begin a series of three Bach recitals playing works for unaccompanied violin and the trio sonatas for pedal cembalo (a harpsichord with two keyboards and an organ-style pedal board for the bass line).

July 16th 1942: back to Beethoven with works for cello and piano played by Leily Howell and Peter Stadlen (the 52nd in the Beethoven chamber music series)

August 17th 1942: the Fleet Street Choir conducted by T. B. Lawrence in Byrd’s Five-part Mass and a selection of madrigals and part songs

20th July 1943: a performance of Bach’s Art of Fugue shared between strings (Frederick Grinke, Watson Forbes, James Harvey Phillips and James Whitehead) and two pianos (Hilda Dederich, Ethel de Gomez).  For this concert, there was the luxury of a double-sided, half quarto programme complete with a musical example and short note by Watson Forbes.

4th February 1944: a performance of Bach’s Goldberg Variations by Lucille Wallace.  Another treat with a double-sided programme and short note by the performer.

October 25th 1944: piano trios by Beethoven and Schubert played by Frederick Grinke, Florence Hooton and Kendall Taylor.  The programme indicated that an illustrated souvenir celebrating the fifth anniversary of the National Gallery concerts is on sale at 2/6d (the National Gallery Concerts publication, detailed below).

National Gallery Concerts : programme 4th December 1941

National Gallery Concerts : programme 4th December 1941

…and finally, we find Mrs. Rosenberg attending her last Gallery concert…

January 9th 1946: Aksel Schott and Harold Craxton performed Schubert’s song cycle Die Schöne Müllerin

The programmes were planned by Myra Hess and Howard Ferguson and concentrated on mainstream repertoire that would appeal to the widest audience. Some 1,698 concerts were given to a total of over 800,000 people.  There was a modest charge of one penny (1d) for each programme and refreshments were provided both before and after the concert.  The admission charge for each concert was one shilling (1/-). The programmes themselves were always a simple, single sheet, mostly about octavo in size, but often smaller than that, and there was a weekly brochure.  A complete run of programmes with statistical notes was deposited at the [then] British Museum Library and a record is at

National gallery concerts, in aid of the Musicians’ benevolent fund, 10th October 1939-10th October 1944, was published to celebrate the fifth anniversary of the concerts and included essays by Myra Hess, Kenneth Clark, E. M. Forster and Howard Ferguson. The UL copy is at M455.b.90.1 and can be ordered in the Anderson Room.

After the War, a full list was compiled by Ferguson and published as Music performed at the National Gallery concerts, 10th October 1939 to 10th April 1946. The UL copy is at M455.b.90.2 and can be ordered in the Anderson Room.

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5 Responses to The National Gallery concerts in Wartime London: a vignette from the Rosenberg collection

  1. Pingback: I found this letter…. | MusiCB3 Blog

  2. John Leigh says:

    Very interesting. My dad was a medical student in London during those years, I wonder now how musically inclined he may have been. It is inspiring what people were able to accomplish.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Jenn says:

    Thank you for this article. It has been extremely helpful in my research of Myra Hess for my senior lecture recital.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Jeff says:

    Take a look at the BFI film short “Listen to Britain” made in 1942 where there are a few brief excerpts of a concert attended by the Queen Mother.

    Liked by 2 people

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