Rosa (Rosi) Grunschlag
WITH THE death of acclaimed pianist Rosi Grunschlag, it was the final curtain call for the talented musical duo – Rosi and piano-partner and sister Toni – who had been making music together for 80 years.
Early this year Toni and Rosi, a documentary in which the sisters told their remarkable story, was shown to critical acclaim on BBC4. They spoke of having to flee their home town, Vienna, as the Nazis came to power, and remembered with affection their brief stay in the UK before finally emigrating to the US, where they enjoyed a successful 60-year career as an internationally renowned piano-duo. Toni died in 2007, but Rosi kept on playing.
Rosi Grunschlag was the third child in a remarkably musical family; her elder brother David studied violin with the great maestro Bronislaw Huberman (who went on to form the Palestine Symphony Orchestra), while sister Toni was taught by a pupil of Liszt. Rosi would follow her siblings to the State Music Academy.
A promising career loomed for the teenage pianist but the 1938 Anschluss put paid to that. The tiny apartment where the Grunschlags lived was confiscated by a local Nazi but the whole family managed to flee thanks to Huberman, who secured visas for them to join their parents in the USA. But before they could do that, they came to Britain where the Jewish Agency placed them with the Bagenal family in Hertfordshire, Although Mrs Bagenal had offered to take one Jewish girl for two months, she realised that the sisters could not be separated and they ended up staying there for five blissful months that did much to restore their emotional stability.
But it was when Rosi and Toni finally reached New York that their careers took off. Their father, who had encouraged his children to become musicians, worked nights to buy them a second-hand Steinway. In 1940, given the opportunity to play for Olin Downes, the celebrated New York Times music critic, the sisters so entranced him that the 15 minutes he had originally allocated for them became an hour and a half. It was Downes who suggested the girls perform as a two-piano team.
They continued to be a perfect team, different yet perfectly complementary, for over 60 years, playing a wide range of styles from the classical repertoire to works by contemporary composers, some written especially for them. They practised, performed, taught and lived together in the apartment building into which they had moved in 1943 and a summer house in Cape Cod. Rosi, like her sister, never married because, as she pointed out – “every man wants his 6 o’clock dinner and as a musician you can’t provide that.”
But the extraordinary relationship she had with Toni – almost like twins reading each other’s minds – and with music, ensured that hers was a rich, fulfilled life. After her mother died in 1949 Rosi also started teaching at the Ethel Walker School and for more than 25 years she taught over 200 students with great passion but also a great deal of patience. “She believed in each one of them and they felt that intensity and they grew accordingly,” said a friend. All the people who knew her describe her as a trailblazer, full of determination, drive and ambition as well as humour.
Rosi never forgot her struggle against adversity and what had ultimately saved her. When addressing a group of young Austrians, she had this advice for them: “If you have a talent, work on it because when you have to run for your life, you leave everything behind. You just take yourself, if you are lucky. But your education is yours to keep. It is your transportable asset.”
Rosi Grunschlag: enjoying the fruits of an 80 year musical experience