Gioconda de Vito
She was born, one of five children, in the town of Martina Franca in southern Italy, to a wine-making family. Initially she played the violin untaught, having received only music theory lessons from the local bandmaster. Her uncle, a professional violinist based in Germany, heard her attempting a concerto by Charles Auguste de Bériot when she was aged only eight, and decided to teach her himself. At age 11, she entered the Rossini Conservatory in Pesaro to study with Remy Principe. She graduated at age 13, commenced a career as a soloist, and at age 17 became Professor of Violin at the newly founded conservatory in Bari. In 1932, aged 25, she won the first International Violin Competition in Vienna. After she played the Bach Chaconne in D minor, Jan Kubelík came up to the stage and kissed her hand (she later appeared under the baton of Kubelik’s son Rafael Kubelík).
She then taught at Palermo and Rome, at the Accademia di Santa Cecilia. She had earlier been presented to Benito Mussolini, who greatly admired her playing, and he used his influence to get her the Rome post. World War II interrupted what would otherwise have been the most productive period of her burgeoning career. In 1944 she was given the unique honour of a lifetime professorship at the Academy.
In 1944 she premiered the Violin Concerto of Ildebrando Pizzetti. She made the first of her relatively few recordings after the war. In 1948 she made her London debut under Victor de Sabata, playing the Brahms concerto. This was very successful, and led to performances at the Edinburgh Festival and with fellow artists such as Yehudi Menuhin, Isaac Stern and Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli. By 1953, she was considered Europe's No. 1 woman violinist, while remaining virtually unknown in the United States.
She played under Wilhelm Furtwängler a number of times, and had a great affinity for his approach. In 1953 they also played a Brahms sonata at Castel Gandolfo for Pope Pius XII, the choice of Brahms being the Pope's own request. In 1957 she played the Mendelssohn concerto for the pontiff. A member of the audience later sent her a letter saying that he was no longer an atheist, because her playing of the slow movement had made him realise there was a God.
During that concert, she realised she had reached the pinnacle of her career, and decided to retire in only another three years. She told the pope of her decision. Pius XII tried for an hour to dissuade her, saying she was far too young to retire so early, but to no avail. But she still had three years. During that time, Gioconda de Vito collaborated with Edwin Fischer, who was near the end of his career. During their recording sessions for the Brahms sonatas Nos. 1 and 3, he had to acquire medical attention. Sonata No. 2 was taken over by Tito Aprea in 1956, after they successfully recorded Beethoven's Kreutzer and Frank's A major sonata. Fischer died in 1960.
She retired in 1961, aged only 54, not just from concert appearances, but from playing the violin at all. She preferred not even to teach. On one occasion, on holiday in Greece, she encountered Yehudi Menuhin on a beach, and she agreed to play some duets with him at his villa. When they got back there, he realised he did not have a spare violin, so that sole opportunity to play once more came to nothing. What could they have played? We are lucky to have Gioconda's recording back in 1955 of Viotti's Duo in G with Menuhin – a day earlier they also recorded Handel's Trio Sonata in g minor with John Shinebourne, cello and Raymond Leppard, harpsichord. Both recordings are to be found on Disc 41 of "Menuhin – the Great EMI Recordings". 2 years earlier Menuhin, de Vito and Shinebourne teamed up with harpsichordist George Malcolm for Handel's Op.5/2 "Sonata for 2 Violins and Continuo in D" (Complete EMI Recordings, Korean issue from 2013), all these recordings were done in Abbey Road Studio No.3.
She never played in the United States, although Arturo Toscanini and Charles Munch repeatedly asked her to. (She had played Bach for Toscanini in Paris in the 1930s, and he commented: "That's the way Bach should be played".) However, she did appear in Australia (1957 & 1960), Argentina, India, Israel and Europe; and in the Soviet Union, where she was juror for the first Tchaikovsky Violin Competition, at the invitation of David Oistrakh.
Her repertoire was small. It excluded most works written after the 19th century (for example, the Elgar, Sibelius, Bartók, Berg, Bloch and Walton concertos) – the sole exception seems to be the Pizzetti concerto. Her particular favourites were "the three Bs" – Bach, Beethoven and Brahms. Her major recordings were issued in 1990 as "The Art of Gioconda de Vito". They include a Bach Double Violin Concerto with Yehudi Menuhin, conducted by Anthony Bernard.
In 1949, she married a Briton, David Bicknell, an executive with EMI, and she lived in the UK from 1951, although her English was always rudimentary and she often needed a translator. Bicknell died in 1988, and Gioconda de Vito died in 1994, aged 87.
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