My grandmother, Ilse Gombrich née Heller, acquired her Grotrian-Steinweg grand piano as a very young woman and still owned it when she died, aged 96. Playing it was the joy of her life – her “first love”, as she described it. This is its story.

Ilse Heller was born in 1910 in Bohemia, which had become Czechoslovakia by the time she graduated from the Prague Conservatoire, winning the gold medal for her year. I am not sure exactly when she acquired her piano, but it may have been at around this point in the late 1920s.

Ilse and Ernst Gombrich duet, 1985

Ilse moved to Vienna in 1930 to pursue her musical studies. It was thus her devotion to music that led her to meet my grandfather, Ernst Gombrich, the son of her piano teacher, Leonie Gombrich.

Being of Jewish origin, Ernst could not find work in Vienna after graduating from the University. He was lucky, eventually, to be offered work by the Warburg Institute, which had already moved from Hamburg to London to escape growing antisemitism in Germany. Thus in 1936, Ilse and her piano moved to London with her new husband.

Richard age 2 with piano, 1940

By the outbreak of war in 1939, Ernst and Ilse had a two-year-old son (my father, Richard) and my great-grandparents had also escaped to England with their grand piano, a Steinway. Ernst found work with the BBC, monitoring enemy broadcasts from a concealed location in the countryside.

The piano was a necessity, not least because income from music pupils was more important than ever. Both my grandmother and great-grandmother continued to teach. Money was tight and remained so – not just for my family’s immediate needs, with refugee parents and a young son, but for other friends and relatives fleeing Europe and in desperate need of help of one kind or another.

Even after war ended, it took a few years for my grandparents to find a permanent home, and the frequent letters between them in lieu of phone calls are full of discussions about potential and actual pupils for Ilse.

Ilse and Richard Gombrich (age 3) with piano, 1940

In 1948, Ernst and Ilse finally settled in their home off the Finchley Road, where the piano occupied the front window bay for almost 60 years. As well as those numerous pupils, it was played by many visiting friends, solo and in duet with my grandmother, or else she would accompany others as they sang or played their instruments. My father sang with his mother’s accompaniment and my aunt Dea would play her violin with Ernst joining in on the cello.

Ernst’s offer of work at the Warburg Institute in 1936 changed the course of his life and my grandmother’s, and quite possibly saved them. That is why, when Ilse died at the age of 96, it seemed fitting to us that we should invite the Institute to become her piano’s permanent home.

Ilse and Leonie Gombrich with piano, 1972
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