Gioconda de Vito

The violin genius who was happiest in her garden

If you had looked into the garden of Flint Cottage in Troutstream Way, Loudwater, in the 1970s or 1980s you could have spotted an elderly lady contentedly feeding tame squirrels from the palm of her hand.

You might well have smiled and walked on, thinking – quite correctly – that caring for the birds and animals in her large riverside garden was one of her greatest pleasures.

But what you almost certainly would not have known is that this seemingly ordinary Home Counties lady was actually Gioconda de Vito, who in the 1950s was regarded as Europe’s finest female violinist.

She was a woman who once had not one, but two, Stradivarius violins, who knew Mussolini, and had twice played for Pope Pius XII – but who stopped performing at the age of 54 to avoid playing on past her prime.

But to return to the beginning … Gioconda de Vito was born in Martina Franca, a small hillside town in southern Italy, in 1907. Her family had been wine-producers for generations but they were also musical. Her sister was a pianist and her maternal uncle was a professional violinist.

Having learnt to play the mandolin by the age of eight she began practising the violin each day after school. She had no specialist tuition at first – her only teacher was the leader of the municipal band who was not a violinist. Nevertheless, after six months she was proficient enough to attempt a concerto by the Belgian composer, Charles Auguste de Bériot.

Her violinist uncle was astonished when she first played for him and decided to teach her himself. At 11, she went on to the conservatoire in Pesaro, within two years she had earned her diploma, and at 17 (yes, 17) she was appointed Professor of Violin at the newly-opened conservatoire in Bari.
During her late teens and early twenties she gave solo recitals throughout Italy, then in 1932 she won the first International Violin Competition in Vienna. One of the judges, Jan Kubelík, the great Czech violinist and composer, was so impressed by her performance of the Bach Chaconne that he walked to the stage and kissed her hand.

De Vito later taught in Palermo before being appointed to a professorship at Rome’s prestigious Accademia di Santa Cecilia – with the help of Mussolini. He was a violinist himself and admired her playing. De Vito performed in Germany shortly before World War 2 broke out but her career, like so much else, effectively stood still until the fighting stopped.

It took off again, rather gloriously, in 1948 when she performed the Brahms concerto in the Royal Albert Hall, with Victor de Sabata and the London Philharmonic Orchestra. This led to invitations to perform with Yehudi Menuhin at the Edinburgh Festival, the inaugural Bath Festival and the Festival Hall. She also played in Edinburgh with three other giants of mid-20th century music -- the American violinist Isaac Stern, the Italian pianist Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli, and the legendary German conductor, Wilhelm Furtwängler.
De Vito made the first of her relatively few recordings for EMI/HMV at the Abbey Road studios in the late 1940s and fell in love with one of the company’s executives, David Bicknell. They married in 1949 and moved to Loudwater in 1951.

Two years later, de Vito and Furtwängler  -- the musician with whom she had most affinity -- performed Brahms’s G major sonata for Pope Pius XII at his summer residence, Castel Gandolfo.

In 1957, de Vito received another invitation from the Pope. This time she played the Mendelssohn concerto in a Vatican concert that was broadcast to the nation.

During this performance de Vito, a devout Catholic, realised she had reached the zenith of her career and resolved to retire. Afterwards she told the Pope about her decision. He implored her to think again, reasoning that she had a God-given talent which she should share with the world.

De Vito then decided to continue performing – but only for another four years. She gave concerts in Australia, India and Israel. David Oistrakh invited her to join the jury of the first Tchaikovsky Violin Competition in Russia in 1958 and she performed in Moscow and Leningrad. 

Among the beautiful violins used by de Vito during this time was the ‘Tuscan’ Stradivarius – one of four made for the Grand Duke of Tuscany in 1723. It was loaned to her by the Italian government in1953. She also had a 1715 Stradivarius, another loaned instrument that had been pressed on her by a wealthy Hungarian instrument collector. (Mussolini offered her a third Stradivarius before the war but her canny mother vetoed this gift. “You cannot accept something so valuable from a man,” she said.)

De Vito’s final concert was in Basel, Switzerland, in November 1961. After the performance she sold the violin she owned – a Gagliano -- to a Milanese collector. The 1715 Strad was returned to its Hungarian owner and the finest violin – the 1723 ‘Tuscan’ – was donated to the Accademia di Santa Cecilia (even though the Italian government had by then offered to gift it to her).
De Vito never played again and did not even teach. She made a clean break from the music world and enjoyed a long retirement with her husband, David.
After he died in 1988 she divided her time between their Loudwater home and the flat she shared with her sister in Rome, where she died in 1994 at the age of 87. She apparently remained modest to the end, but it had been a life of magnificent achievement nonetheless.

Further reading:
Duchen, J., ‘In vito veritas’, The Strad magazine, July 1987
The link to download PDF

Contribution by - David Budge

to start

We talk about tinkling the ‘ivories’


considering what that really means…

After re-reading Heart of Darkness recently I decided to do a little delving into the late 19th-century ivory trade that was responsible for much of the murder and mayhem described in Joseph Conrad’s 1899 novella.

What I learnt was rather chastening for anyone who loves the piano.

From 1840 to around 1940 the United States was the world’s biggest buyer of elephant tusks. And a very high proportion of the tusks ended up, improbably, in two small adjoining towns in Connecticut – Deep River and Essex.

Why there? Unintended consequences. Deep River happened to be the home town of a brilliant silversmith-turned-inventor, called Phineas Pratt, who built a cutting machine that could turn animal horns and elephant tusks into hair combs.

The company he established, and its neighbouring rival, diversified into a wide range of ivory goods – cutlery handles, billiard balls, shirt buttons, crochet hooks and door knobs.

But it was the popularity of the piano, which every middle class home had to have in the second half of the 19th century,  that caused the demand for ivory to explode and greatly enriched the Connecticut companies. 

In the first decade of the 20th century up to 350,000 pianos were being produced in the US annually. The European demand for pianos was, of course, also huge but it wasn’t until the 1950s that ivory keys were routinely replaced by plastic ones.

The ivory was laid out in giant ‘greenhouses’ for roughly 30 days in order to be bleached white enough for the pearly keyboards that customers wanted.

By slicing the ivory thinly the Connecticut factories could turn one adult African elephant tusk weighing 75lbs into veneers for about 45 keyboards. Even so, it is estimated that the Deep River factory alone accounted for the deaths of well over 1,000 elephants a year in its heyday.

There was a heavy human cost too, as Heart of Darkness makes clear. David Livingstone, the Scottish physician and missionary, estimated that five Africans – men, women and children - were enslaved or died for every tusk that was carried from the Congo and other Central and East African countries to the Arab ivory traders in Zanzibar.

Anyone who reads about the history of this inglorious trade will never look at an old piano in quite the same way again.

Further information:
Joyce, C., ‘Elephant Slaughter, African Slavery and America's Pianos’, National Public Radio, August 18, 2014 
David H. Shayt, D.H., ‘Elephant under Glass: The Piano Key Bleach House of Deep River, Connecticut’, The Journal of the Society for Industrial Archeology, Vol. 19, No. 1 (1993)

Contribution by - David Budge

to start
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