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How the concerts started

New Year’s Day fun

One of the most celebrated concerts at the National Gallery took place on New Year’s Day in 1940. At first glance, the bill looked straightforward – a performance of Schumann’s Carnaval, followed by Haydn’s Toy Symphony. But the rehearsal photographs released to newspapers showing famous musicians playing toy instruments suggested something a little out of the ordinary was being planned.

On the day, hundreds of people had to be turned away. Those lucky enough to squeeze in sat on the floor and stood around the walls to make more room. The crowd included large numbers of children.

The concert began with a performance of Schumann’s Carnaval, during which nine well-known pianists played musical chairs taking turns at two pianos. This was followed by Director of the National Gallery Kenneth Clark’s debut as a conductor.

Despite being barely able to read music, the Director ably led an orchestra of famous performers through Haydn’s Toy Symphony. Among his troop was the pianist Benno Moiseiwitsch who played the triangle; the pianist Denise Lassimonne, who hit a toy drum; the actress Joyce Grenfell who blew into a tiny tin container that made a noise like a nightingale; and Myra Hess and her great friend, the pianist, Irene Scharrer, who appeared as cuckoos, and performed with what Clark later affectionately described as ‘regrettable frivolity’.

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