It seemed an unlikely tale but I have learned to give an ear to the extremes of improbability, on the outside chance that it might just be true. A little research demonstrated though, that truth was behind this story. Walter Hambrock was indeed a concert pianist from Vienna, who had married Helen Weir, a lecturer from Airdrie, and had taken the organist’s job as the bread-and-butter base for his music publishing business which he ran from Scotland.
His arrival in Scotland by the modest Woods of Strichen, Aberdeenshire was just a minor part of his highly colourful story – he had perhaps been more used to the Vienna Woods, within whose picturesque setting he had grown up in the early part of the 20th century. By the age of 10 he had mastered the preparatory music for the National Academy in Vienna and was playing the piano for the silent films at his local cinema. Studying music in Vienna, he would relax with a book by the tombstones of Beethoven and Schubert and counted among his companions a student called Horst Wessel, who composed the official song of the Nazi Party before dying in a street brawl in 1930.
Moving to Berlin, Walter was heard by Goering and Goebbels, who recommended him to Hitler. Thereafter he played frequently for the Fuhrer, who gave him a signed copy of Mein Kampf. He could tell you about a performance of The Merry Widow where he saw Hitler sitting with the composer, Franz Lehar. It was at the beginning of 1940 that his world fell apart. On his way home from a performance in Holland, a Gestapo hand fell on his shoulder. “What’s the meaning of this?” he asked. “You’ll find out in Berlin,” he was told. Instead of returning to Vienna he was confronted by Martin Bormann, Hitler’s deputy, pointing a gun and spluttering: “You played for the Fuhrer and then you played for a Jew!”
He was taken to Dachau and then to the dreaded Flossenburg concentration camp where he witnessed mass atrocities. His wife gained a divorce on the basis that he wouldn’t be back. And when he survived the horror and returned to their flat, he was met by another man – wearing his clothes!!
Playing in the ballrooms of Vienna, he also started a music publishing business but, after his second marriage failed, he was at a low ebb when suddenly a Scots lady came into his life. Just as Walter was enjoying the Berlin Olympics of 1936, Helen Weir from Airdrie was rounding off her university career by teaching in Germany. She too was at the Olympics. But it was 26 years later before they met at a friend’s house, by which time she was lecturing at the College of Commerce in Pitt Street, Glasgow.
When Walter came to Scotland to propose, Helen withdrew to her room to think about it. He sat down at the piano and began to play Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, said to have worked wonders in many a romance. The door opened and Helen came with her answer. Beethoven had won the day! They were married in Airdrie in 1962, went to live in Vienna but returned to Helen’s Scotland to live at Strichen, where Walter would run his Austro-Scotia Music Company. So that was how he landed in Strichen, with the perquisite of a splendid house which had been left to the kirk by Jeannie King, a cousin of Mackenzie King, the Canadian Prime Minister. But that meagre salary as kirk organist was just #48 per annum.
Five years later they were back in Lanarkshire, living in Newmains, where Walter’s pupils included talented pianist Tommy McIntyre as well as Neil Reid, who gained fame as a singer when he won Opportunity Knocks. Walter landed the job of being the organist for the beautiful organ at Stonefield Parish Church. He engaged in this employment every weekend during 1968 – 1970. So much talent, so much courage. But always an obstacle in Walter’s life. Misfortune dogged him to his last day in 1979. Having lived to see Stonefield Parish Church burned down that year, final misfortune fell upon him when a snowstorm caused a postponement of his burial at Clarkston Cemetery, Airdrie.
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