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Melodic moments at the National Gallery

9 October 2020

Introducing Rakewell, Apollo’s wandering eye on the art world. Look out for regular posts taking a rakish perspective on art and museum stories.

In 1939, the pianist Myra Hess proposed a series of chamber music concerts at the National Gallery in London, its collection already decanted to a Welsh slate mine for safeguarding during the war. Then director Kenneth Clark was ‘delighted’, he wrote, ‘at the thought of the Gallery being used again for its true purpose, the enjoyment of beauty, rather than for the filling in of forms or the sticking up of envelopes’. The first of the concerts was held on 10 October. They would run on a daily basis in the Barry Rooms, with only a short break at the end of the war, for six and a half years – with more than three-quarters of a million attendees.

Rakewell is delighted to discover that, in our own difficult times and in homage to Hess, the National Gallery is to release four videos of concerts by the members of the London Philharmonic Orchestra. These were recorded earlier this year – not in front of hundreds of people, alas, but in the great octagon of the Barry Rooms nevertheless, and transmitted on the gallery’s website and YouTube channel. Hess’s first programme – she took on the first concert, in case the whole venture was a flop – included music by Schubert, Beethoven and Chopin. The LPO concerts feature music for string players ‘chosen to match paintings in the Gallery’s collection’ – Haydn with Drouais’ Madame de Pompadour at her Tambour Frame, for example.

Members of the London Philharmonic Orchestra play in the Barry Rooms of the National Gallery. Photo: © The National Gallery, London

‘Painting and music are the most natural of partners,’ says National Gallery director Gabriele Finaldi – himself is no mean musician, having as a young man played professionally in an Italian dance band in London. Perhaps, when this crisis is over, it will be time for daily concerts in the Barry Rooms once again (freelance musicians could certainly do with the work). The director keeps a small grand piano in his office in Trafalgar Square, after all…

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