Willy Hess

Havergal Brian

Selected and annotated by Malcolm MacDonald

The death of Willy Hess the other day in Berlin, at the age of seventy-nine, was a reminder of the vivid impression of him I had borne these many years, for he was at one time leader of the Hallé orchestra. His tall, slim figure. a sensitive aquiline nose, pale face and black beard, gave him the appearance of Goethe’s Mephistopheles, alternating with the original of Svengali. I also found Willy Hess in the character of the Black Fiddler in Delius’s Village Romeo and Juliet. All this suggests that Hess was probably the most striking figure on the concert platform since Paganini.

As an orchestral leader, Hess stood alone, — mercurial, impetuous, impulsive and dominating: a type that reproduces itself in some degree in every member of the orchestra. There was also a sense of security when playing with him, such as, I think, must be felt in the BBC orchestra under the leadership of Paul Beard, who is similarly gifted with temperament and ability. Though I have never found a reference to Hess in any biography of Elgar, I recall how the qualities of Hess I have endeavoured to describe must have impressed Elgar when, at an awkward moment at the first performance of King Olaf (the composer conducting), the situation was saved by his promptitude and daring. The occasion was the North Staffordshire Festival of 1896, which reminds me of another contretemps.

Desire Lalande (cor anglais) and Edward Lloyd (the tenor) were not present at the final rehearsal, either because they had travelled on the wrong train or had been ‘carried on’ in the right train. Elgar was visibly nervous and expectant: and something certainly happened during Lloyd’s first big solo. What it was I do not know, but Hess jumped to his feet, steadied the performance, and saved the situation. Years after, in a reflective mood, Elgar told me how much he felt indebted to Ness for his prompt action.

I once met Willy Hess privately, when I showed him several movements of a string quartet I had written: it was at the end of a recital given by him and de Pachmann, their only ensemble piece being Beethoven’s Kreutzer Sonata1. Afterwards we set out to walk to the hotel, Hess with my friends stalking along in front, with his violin case tucked under his arm; and then came de Pachmann and myself. I thought the pianist was poking fun at me, for he spoke of nothing but blue diamonds, about which I knew nothing, until at his death I learned that de Pachmann was a collector of blue diamonds, the lore of which he studied seriously.

  1. I have not yet located the date of this recital — in Stoke? Or in Manchester? — but it should not be impossible to do so. That would then give us an idea of the dating of what seems to have been the only String Quartet by HB! ↩︎

On the other hand, by La main gauche

Musical opinion, April 1939, pp. 588–589