Behind the scenes

Noises Off

Buildings designed to be concert venues are sound-proofed to exclude noise from the outside world. Built with a very different purpose in mind, the National Gallery is not. Its thick walls shut out much of the ambient sound, but loud noises in Trafalgar Square sometimes carry through the rooms. One of the most important behind-the-scenes jobs was therefore to ensure that the lunchtime concerts were not interrupted by sounds from outside.

This often involved considerable diplomacy. Within a few days of the launch of the concerts in October 1939, it became apparent that the bells of the nearby church of St. Martin-in-the-Fields were going to be a problem. They were rung at 1.25pm each day for several minutes, forcing soloists to stop singing and provoking complaints from the musicians. A letter to the Vicar from the Director, Sir Kenneth Clark, brought an inadequate compromise.

Extract from a letter from Kenneth Clark to Reverend Pat McCormick
Extract from a letter from Director Kenneth Clark to Reverend Pat McCormick 

The bells would still call the congregation to prayer, but only for three minutes, during which time it was agreed the concerts would take a momentary break. Pausing performances at exactly 1.27pm was rarely possible, however, and another flurry of letters and entreaties was required before the bells of St. Martin’s were finally silenced.

Trickier still were the military bands which often performed in Trafalgar Square during the summer. The popular tunes they played carried into the Gallery to mingle discordantly with the chamber music of the day.

In 1940 Myra Hess and her team petitioned the London County Council, who replied that their arrangements could not be changed. ‘The open-air band concerts in question,’ they announced, ‘Give benefit to a far greater public than that served by the National Gallery Concerts’.

Every summer brought further negotiations. Then in 1943, a bargain was struck. Hess consented to make a personal appearance beside a bomber plane placed in Trafalgar Square and in exchange the bands agreed not to play between 1.30 and 2.30pm.

Spitfire plane in Trafalgar Square
Spitfire plane in Trafalgar Square
© The Imperial War Museum

The time of the Gallery concerts had to be changed to take advantage of the slot and audiences dipped by around a hundred every day as a result. But those who did attend could once again listen to the daily performances in peace.

Next: The concerts today

 
  • Share