Saturday, October 10, 2009

Guila Bustabo

Guila Bustabo was an Italian-Bohemian violinist born on February 25, 1916 (Heifetz was 15 years old.) She is remembered (if at all) for a brilliant career which ended prematurely. Bustabo later said: "Menuhin got away from his parents. He was lucky. I never got away from mine." She was the daughter of a domineering (some would say abusive) mother. Bustabo was actually born in Wisconsin (which is in itself unusual.) She began lessons with her mother before she was three years old. By age five, she was studying with Leon Sametini (a pupil of Ysaye) in Chicago. After Sametini procured a scholarship for her (from Juilliard), she went to New York to study with Louis Persinger. Other pupils who were studying with Persinger at the same time (including Yehudi Menuhin) would later remember noticing bruises on her little arms and head when she would arrive in the morning. She played Wieniawski’s d minor concerto in her New York, Carnegie Hall debut at age 15 (1931.) By 1934 she was touring Europe and even played the Sibelius concerto for Sibelius himself (by his invitation) in 1937. The old man was exceedingly impressed with her playing. Bustabo was, by then, also playing a Guarnerius violin which had been given to her as a gift by several admirers (including Toscanini.) Some sources say that Lady Ravensdale purchased the violin for her in 1934 after her London debut. Perhaps both versions are true. In 1938 and 1939 she appeared with the New York Philharmonic. During the war years, Bustabo played almost exclusively in all the Nazi-occupied territories in Europe. After the war, she was arrested by General Patton in France, though she was never charged. After that episode, word got around that she had been a Nazi sympathizer (if not a collaborator) and her solo career became somewhat inert, especially in the U.S. She was barely thirty years old. In 1949, she married an American military bandmaster (Edison Stieg.) It has been reported that violinist Yfrah Neaman heard her play in a recital at Wigmore Hall (London) in the late 1940s and “came away very disappointed.” With most of her engagements dried up, she took a teaching post in Innsbruck (Austria) in 1964. She ended up retiring in 1970 and settled in Birmingham, Alabama, with her mother. In Birmingham, she sat in the first violin section of the Alabama Symphony for five years, though she played like a soloist and could not sight read. She divorced her bandmaster husband in 1976 (or 1977 – accounts vary) and her mother (Blanche) finally died in 1992. Guila Bustabo herself died on April 27, 2002, in her two-room apartment in Birmingham, Alabama, at age 86. I do not know what became of her Guarnerius violin. Bustabo’s recordings of the Bruch and Beethoven concertos with the Concertgebouw are still available.


  1. Guila Bustabo was gifted with a Guarneri del Gesu violin, dated 1736, known as the "Muntz or Munts". It was purchased from the Hill firm, by a wealthy British lady, and presented to Bustabo when she was in Great Britain. The violin is now in possession of a foundation in Japan, if memory serves.

  2. Thank you for this information!! You are quite right. The Nippon Music Foundation also owns the Stradivarius violin of the same date (1736) and the same name - Muntz. That Strad was being played by Manuela Janke as of a year ago.

  3. I have a good friend employed by the A S O whom got to know Guila quite well. Her attempts to resurrect any semblance of a career were not successful, even in Birmingham, Al. This was probably due to the stigma from claims of her being associated with the Nazi Regime, even if through marriage. But she had probably lost much ability from not playing for so long. My friend also related to me that Guila Bustabo died a pauper, literally, and was often seen rummaging through garbage cans in the neighborhood where she lived. Such a sad ending for a beautiful and talented virtuosi.

    1. John, I cannot thank you enough for your insightful and informative comment. It has been said that Julius Conus reached a similar end...Jean-Marie Leclair too.