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.

12 comments:

  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.

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  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.

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  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.

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    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.

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    2. Mostly it was her psychological issues...she could play beautifully. By the 1980’s, when I knew her, she wasn’t shunned as far as I could see because of what happened in the 1940’s...

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  4. I played in the ASO first violin section when Guila was there. She was often my stand partner, as we had a rotating section and there were not many of us in the section. I knew her as well as anybody did there, and I can attest she could sight read just fine. However, she did not blend well, could not follow a conductor or section leader well. She had very little knowledge of orchestral literature... I remember her coming into rehearsal and saying “Brahms 4th? Never heard of it”. And then played the difficult parts spot on, just not with anyone else.

    A story: Henryk Szeryng came and played with us... she had no idea who he was, never heard of him... but.. oh yes, he knew who she was and was stunned to find her in the first violin section sitting next to me!

    Her mother was always overbearing to the end, riding tour busses, combing Guila’s hair, and treating her like she was still a little girl. Often, On the bus, Guila would be drinking out of a baby bottle, sitting next to her mother.

    It was strange to see that, and we all knew she had been in the third Reich during the war, but she would never talk about it. I learned much more about her when her obits ran when she died.

    She was manic depressive, and when she was in a manic phase she talked nonstop...

    I always felt she was a shattered person, and knowing when I knew her that she had been in Germany, I wondered what had transpired to ruin her... one could only imagine.

    It is true that some of the players in the ASO studied with her, I chose not to. I felt that studying with her was not worth putting up with her psychological issues.

    Her technique was stunning, she could play anything at the drop of the hat...and She played the Katchaturian violin concerto with us that was absolutely stunning...the greatness was still there!... I was tearing up during the performance because it was a crime that no one else could hear it. And I’ve played with the greats...




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    1. Thank you for your beautiful comment Mr. Hassay. If you had not posted it, the general public would never have known the real details behind the problems Ms. Bustabo endured. Myths and half-truths sometimes sprout up around artists and before one even realizes it, the truth gets completely smothered by the sheer repetition of these half-truths. A case in point: the myth surrounding the composition of Barber's violin concerto which got repeated hundreds of times, even by knowledgeable musicologists. Thank you once again for your marvelous contribution to the post.

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  5. Her life, if anyone could learn what really happened in Germany, is a movie waiting to be made

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    1. I definitely agree. Toscha Seidel had a similar downward spiral though not as brutal. Heifetz once had a recording session scheduled in Hollywood with a recording orchestra and was surprised to see Seidel sitting first chair in the orchestra. He and Seidel used to give joint concerts when they were kids in Europe. When Seidel moved to Las Vegas, a friend of mine would often share a stand with him in the pit orchestras there.

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  6. Mr. Hassay,
    I'm working on a manuscript about the life of Guila Bustabo. I have compiled plenty of research but would like to speak with someone who knew her. Would you be available for a phone interview? Regards, A Forsting.

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    1. Dear Anonymous, In case Mr Hassay does not receive your message, you might try locating him via the Washington DC musicians' union at 202-337-9325. You can also email them at afmdcmusicians@musiciansdc.org As far as I know, Mr Hassay is still living in the Georgetown area. Good luck with your manuscript and best wishes!

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  7. Hello! I'm writing my senior thesis for my bachelor's degree in history on Guila Bustabo. I interviewed one of her students from the 1980s in Birmingham, who told me the story about the Guarneri violin.

    Bustabo, always scattered and forgetful, locked the instrument in a locker at the train station in Birmingham one evening (I think this would have been between 1983 and 1986). The next morning she returned to discover that she had locked an empty locker and left the priceless violin unprotected. After that incident, Bustabo knew she couldn't be trusted with such an expensive instrument, and she returned the violin to Lady Ravensdale in London who she got it from in 1934.

    Also, Blanche Bustabo died in 1986 according to her tombstone and other sources I've found, not 1992!

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