The Best Forgotten Violinist of All Time

Bustabo 1

Forty-odd years before Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg burst on the scene and four years before Ginette Neveu won first prize at the very first Wieniawski Violin Competition, a young firebrand with blazing dark eyes and an attractive Buster Brown haircut dazzled a Carnegie Hall audience with her performance of that very same Wieniawski’s second Violin Concerto. A year later, she gave her first solo recital at Carnegie Hall where she dazzled not only the audience but also conductor Arturo Toscanini, who was present. Jean Sibelius said, in 1937, that her interpretation of his violin concerto was just as he “envisioned it when I composed it.” Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari and the lesser-known Otmar Nussio were so enraptured by her playing that they composed violin concerti specifically for her.

She should have become the defining female violinist of her time, a performer of smoldering intensity with a gut-level emotional approach that still astounds after more than 70 years. But instead, she became a pariah in the concert world, shunned and ignored, suffered a mental breakdown, bipolar disorder and died forgotten, a pauper.

Her name was Guila Bustabo.

Bustabo posterBorn Teressina Bustabo in Manitowoc, Wisconsin in 1916, she began playing the violin at the age of two. At three, she and her family moved to Chicago so that she could study with Ray Huntington at the Chicago Musical College. Huntington was so impressed by her that he arranged a private audition for her with Frederick Stock, music director of the Chicago Symphony. Stock recommended her to Leon Samétini, a former pupil of Eugene Ysaÿe, with whom she studied at age four. She made her professional debut at age nine with Stock and the Chicago Symphony, then moved east where she performed with the Philadelphia Orchestra and joined Yehudi Menuhin in Louis Persinger’s violin class as Juilliard. Then came her twin performances at Carnegie Hall, and it seemed as if her future was assured. Toscanini was so impressed that he was one of those who donated a large sum of money (Fritz Kreisler and Lady Ravenscroft was two others, along with several smaller donors) to help her acquire a rare Guarnieri del Jesu violin. In 1934 she toured Europe, including England (where she made her first recordings), and Asia.

But Guila had a dark cloud hanging over her life: her domineering mother, Blanche. And Blanche took it into her head that her daughter should take advantage of the numerous big-name artists deserting Fascist Italy, Nazi Germany and the countries they conquered by playing in those venues the others refused.

Guila and Mom at Carnegie Hall

Bustabo, with her mother Blanche holding the wreath with her, after her first Carnegie Hall concert in 1931.

Guila was incensed, but she had already made the mistake of signing a paper making her mother her legal guardian and manager, and mom wasn’t about to give up on the Nazi-Fascist gravy train. She performed not only in Italy and Germany, but also in Austria after the Nazis annexed it in 1938 and then in the occupied Netherlands under the Nazi-kissing conductor Willem Mengelberg. Twice she tried to break free, but her mother hunted her down both times and pulled her back in. After the Second World War was over, Mengelberg’s cooperation with the Nazis led to a performance ban in his home country for five years, and Bustabo was arrested in Paris. General George Patton learned of her, listened to her story, and invited her to perform for his troops, but if it was known that she had played for the ardently Nazi conductor Oswald Kabasta, he might not have helped her. Later the charges against her were dropped, but her name was mud in liberal classical circles. As she later said, “Menuhin got away from his parents. He was lucky. I never got away from mine.”

Postwar, she revived her career in on-and-off fashion in Germany, performing and recording with such conductors as Hans Schmidt-Isserstedt (the Dvořák Violin Concerto) and Nussio (the Brahms Concerto and Nussio’s own concerto). In 1948 she married Edison Stieg, an American military musician, but they divorced in 1976.

In 1964 she became professor of violin at the Innsbruck Conservatory, still playing occasionally. Since Blanche had spent most of the fortune she had made during the war years, she was forced to sell her Guarnieri violin so she could afford a little apartment near the Conservatory, from which she was forced to resign in 1970 due to bipolar disorder. She returned to the United States with both mom and hubby in tow, taking a position in the violin section of the Alabama Symphony Orchestra (where she occasionally played solo) for five years. While living there, her medical care was graciously provided free of charge by a physician and friend, Dr. Ralph Tieszen. Following her symphony stint and divorce from her husband, Bustabo continued to live in Birmingham, Alabama, where she died in 2002, forgotten and broke.

Bustabo 2Listening to Bustabo’s surviving recordings today, one can easily hear why she was so highly prized in her time. She played with a bright tone, using a bit more vibrato than her famous colleague Menuhin (probably the influence of the Ysaÿe method she learned in Chicago). Her technique was absolutely superb, and she almost always dug into the music in a way that still raises goose bumps on the listener. The only thing she lacked was a really tight spiccato, a technique in which one bounces the bow off the strings; hers was good, but not in the same league with that of Bronislaw Huberman. Her only really disappointing performance was the Beethoven Violin Concerto with Mengelberg; his tempi were so slow and his conducting so lackluster that it rubbed off on her. The rest of her recordings, small though their numbers are, show her to superb advantage. In addition to her commercial recordings (for Columbia) of the Paganini and Sibelius Concerti with German conductor Fritz Zaun, a live 1938 broadcast of the latter work with the New York Philharmonic under John Barbirolli has since been discovered, but not commercially issued.

You can hear this great artist for yourself on YouTube by clicking on the links below:

Paganini (arr. Wilhelmj): Violin Concerto No. 1 in D, 1st movement only (with Fritz Zaun)

bustabo_paganiniDvořák: Violin Concerto in a min., Op. 53 (with Hans Schmidt-Isserstedt):
I.   Allegro ma non troppo
II.  Adagio ma non troppo
III. Finale: Allegro gracioso ma non troppo

Brahms: Violin Concerto in D, Op. 77 (1st movement only) (with Otmar Nussio)

Bruch: Violin Concerto (with Willem Mengelberg):
I.   Prelude; Allegro moderato
II.  Adagio
III. Finale: Allegro energico

Sibelius: Violin Concerto in d min., Op. 47 (with Fritz Zaun):
I.   Allegro moderato
II.  Adagio di molto
III. Allegro, ma non tanto

Nussio: Violin Concerto (1959) (with Otmar Nussio)

Wolf-Ferrari: Violin Concerto in D, Op. 26 (with Rudolf Kempe)

Encore pieces:

Sarasate: Habanera (from 2 Spanish Dances) (with Heinz Schröter)

Novacek: Perpetuum mobile (with Gerald Moore)

Happy listening…I think you’ll love her!

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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