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National Gallery Commemorates Second World War with Day of Events and Online Resource

In the year which commemorates the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Britain, the National Gallery is launching an online resource dedicated to the history of the National Gallery during the Second World War.

A series of special concerts will also be held at the Gallery on 5 October 2010, celebrating Dame Myra Hess, the pianist who conceived the idea to turn the National Gallery into a venue for musical concerts during the Blitz.

The National Gallery is delighted to have secured a rare appearance from Ida Haendel, a world-renowned violinist who performed in the original wartime concerts when she was just a teenager. In a lunchtime concert she will perform a varied programme of music by Romanian, German and French composers with her accompanist Misha Dacic.

The online resource focuses largely on Myra Hess and the wartime concerts, which boosted the morale of ordinary Londoners during a time of ‘cultural blackout’. Images show the queues which formed outside the Gallery in Trafalgar Square for the concerts, which were attended by a total of 750,000 people. The website takes the visitor behind the scenes of how these events were brought to fruition, and also into the canteen that functioned in the backrooms of the Gallery during the war.

In addition, the site tells the story of what happened to the nation’s collection of paintings in 1939. As widespread bombing of London was predicted, director Kenneth Clark oversaw the evacuation of some of the world’s finest masterpieces to places of safety deep in the cavernous chambers of a disused Welsh slate mine. He also instigated ‘Picture of the Month’ – when just one work was returned to the walls of the National Gallery each month, giving Londoners a chance to see something from the permanent collection during wartime.

The special celebratory events in October include Piers Lane in conversation with Ida Haendal and Stephen Kovacevich, a pupil of Myra Hess.

An evening concert showcases three Germanic composers from the Romantic era and Britain’s foremost 20th-century composer, Benjamin Britten. It includes both German Lieder and English song. The repertoire for the evening concert was inspired by a touching story from the Second World War concerts:

“In May 1940, as news reached London of the German advance on the Netherlands, the celebrated German Lieder singer, Elena Gerhardt, telephoned Myra Hess to cancel her appearance at the Gallery. ‘Myra’, she told her friend, ‘I cannot sing today. Nobody will want to hear the German language’. Hess reassured Gerhardt this wasn’t the case and offered to accompany her. As the two women walked on stage, Gerhardt was still concerned, when the audience, sensing her nerves, responded with an ovation warm enough to dispel any doubts that music was what mattered’.”
John Amis, classical music critic and friend of Dame Myra Hess

For Myra Hess, the concerts offered a wonderful opportunity “to give spiritual solace to those who are giving all to combat the evil”. Kenneth Clark described the people who attended the concerts thus: “All sorts. Young and old, smart and shabby, Tommies in uniform with their tin hats strapped on, old ladies with ear trumpets, musical students, civil servants, office boys, busy public men; all sorts had come.”

It is hoped the new online resource and the modern-day concerts will give people an insight into the National Gallery during this monumental and fascinating period in history.

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