BBC chief uncovers the lives of two lost Jewish girl pianists

BBC chief uncovers the lives of two lost Jewish girl pianists


norman lebrecht

January 23, 2012

Will Wyatt was a BBC career man, rising up the greasy pole to head of television and deputy director general until he took early retirement in 1999. He is now an independent film maker. Next Sunday, he presents the lives of two sister piano prodigies who fled Nazi-occupied Vienna and were taken in as child refugees by his wife’s grandparents.  Neither ever married or achieved fame.

Will met them in the 1990s and was smitten by their charm and grace. Toni, the older sister, died in 2007. Rosi, the younger, lasted just long enough to see the film of her life, which goes out on BBC4 next Sunday. She died last week.

Will has written a personal introduction to the film for Slipped Disc:

TONI AND ROSI – BBC4 Sunday 29th January 2012. 11.05pm

I first met Toni and Rosi Grunschlag in the mid 90s. They were Jewish, Viennese, New Yorker sisters – funny, argumentative, determined, in short great copy – who had made a career as a piano duo. They were never stars but had toured Europe, played important venues in the USA and recorded. Music was their life.
They had been brought up in a tiny apartment in Vienna in the twenties and thirties, “big room, small room, kitchen”. Their father was determined that his children be musicians. The eldest, David, was a brilliant violinist, chosen as a pupil by Bronislaw Huberman, with whom he went to Palestine to be a founder member and later concert master of the Palestine, now Israel, Symphony Orchestra.
The girls were both piano prodigies. Their parents were able to travel to Palestine but they had to remain in Nazi occupied Vienna. When all else failed music saved them. Toni wrote to Huberman whose intervention secured them visas to England. It was my wife’s grandparents who took them in here and with whom they had formed an undying bond. The sisters later travelled to New York and were reunited with their parents. Neither sister married so by the time the film was made they had lived, rehearsed and played together for eighty years.
I fell in love with them and their story and videoed them in their summer house on Cape Cod to capture their memories for the family. My career had been at the BBC and thought Toni and Rosi could make a wonderful film. In 2006 the sisters were invited to give three concerts in Vienna as part of Holocaust commemorations. My wife went with them and reported that an American singer, Todd Murray, had also fallen in love with them and was making a documentary.

At the beginning of 2007, Toni died. I decided that I could not forgive myself if there was not a film about these two indomitable and inspiring women and that although I had last made a film in 1977 I would go ahead and make one. Time was short so I would fund it myself and try to raise money on the way. Todd Murray agreed that we could be partners and that we could combine material.

In 2009 I took a crew to Vienna to film Rosi on another visit, this time to speak at a memorial concert for Huberman, given by Joshua Bell. I later filmed her in New York in the building where she had lived since 1943 and returning to the house in the Hertfordshire countryside where she and Toni had first found sanctuary. In 2010 Rosi played a recital in London which raised a substantial sum towards the budget.
It was a great moment when I was able to show her the film. I had one more copyright release for her to sign and her spirit and canniness had not deserted her: “Vell OK Vill, but first I see the film.” She loved it, chuckling and adding a commentary, “That’s right!”, ”The Nazis”, “Ve had to get out”. At the end, “Now I sign.”
Alas, Rosi died on 15th January this year aged 89. Todd Murray had shown her the film again and she was excited to know that it was to be broadcast by the BBC.

(c) Will Wyatt, 2012