Mystery unravelled behind Bösendorfer caught in whirlwind of history

A clock pictured over a radio studio.
A new film throws light on the story behind the grand piano rediscovered in a Radio Slovenija studio. Photo: Courtesy of the film author Miha Vipotnik

A grand piano that laid abandoned in a corner of a studio at Radio Slovenija until just over a decade ago is the main protagonist in a film that premiered at Ljubljana’s Kinodvor on 4 January, 79 years after the piano’s erstwhile owners were executed by the Partisan secret police.

The Bösendorfer used to be used to produce special sound effects, but was then covered in black cloth and left to gather dust. It was musician Gregor Strniša who discovered it by chance in 2011 while recording a radio play. Impressed and intrigued by the piano, he set out to unravel its mystery.

In 2017 he released an album called Broken Piano featuring music produced by the Bösendorfer’s keyboards and strings. He also has a story about the piano, which served as a basis for a 2018 radio documentary. The piano has since been restored.

Strniša discovered that the piano, which features 92 keys, four more than the standard keyboard, was manufactured in 1925. It was bought second-hand by Rado Hribar, the industrial, banker and collector who was killed together with his wife Ksenija Hribar by the Partisan secret police in 1944.

The Hribars’ story inspired writer Drago Jančar to write I Saw Her That Night, the internationally-acclaimed award-winning novel.

Hribar’s nephew, Peter Hribar, revealed that his uncle had to sell the piano cheaply to an army major under a threat that it was otherwise going to be confiscated. Later it came to light that the major in question must have been Bojan Adamič (1912-1995), the famed music composer and conductor. This is how the piano found its way to Radio Ljubljana, the precursor to Radio Slovenija.

Director and screenwriter Miha Vipotnik has picked up on the story in his new film Wracked Piano (Pošvedrani Klavir), whose premiere on 4 January almost coincided with the anniversary of the Hribars’ execution.

The animated and live action film is in the form of a call-in radio programme featuring cartoonist Ciril Horjak as the host Dr Horowitz, intertwining several stories which are all linked to the grand piano in one way or another. The film is based on true events.

Dr Horowitz talks to listeners calling in his show and sketches down their stories and ideas, including those of a radio doorman, played by Janez Škof, and Mrs Marija Wolf, the inventory manager who secretly plays the piano in the radio basement. Wolf is portrayed by Saša Pavček.

The film also features Gregor Strniša and his music, along with that by Adamič and Vojko Sfiligoj. The score won the Vesna Award at the Slovenian Film Festival in October 2022.

Vipotnik said the film did not cling to facts about Rado and Ksenija Hribar as that would have gone beyond what he set out to achieve. “I wanted to tell the story as it is told by word of mouth. Every protagonist knows something about the piano or the owners and they tell it each in their own way.”