La Gioconda

La Gioconda usually means Leonardo da Vinci’s painting (of which, apparently, there are two versions), or the model depicted in the painting, or the opera by Amilcare Ponchielli, or the tragedy by Gabriele d’Annunzio. But there is another, which is no news to violinists.

Gioconda de Vito (1907-94) was a born to a winemaking family in the town of Martina Franca in southern Italy. Initially given music lessons by the local bandmaster, she recounts that at the age of eight she was supposed to have been sent to a convent school, but promised her mother she would behave if only she could be given a violin. At age 11, she entered the Rossini Conservatory in Pesaro, graduating at age 13.

In 1932, de Vito won the first International Violin Competition in Vienna. After she played the Bach Chaconne in D minor, the great Czech violinist Jan Kubelík came up to the stage and kissed her hand. She later appeared under the baton of his son, Rafael Kubelík.

In 1948 de Vito made her London debut playing the Brahms violin concerto. Its success 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 foremost woman violinist, while remaining virtually unknown in the United States.

Brahms composed his violin concerto in 1878 during a summer spent on the lakeside at Pörtschach in southern Austria. It was dedicated to his close friend the Hungarian violinist Joseph Joachim. Despite its technical difficulties, the concerto is not heroic, but essentially lyrical, recalling the description Brahms gave to Clara Schumann of Joachim’s own “Hungarian Concerto” (1857): “full of restrained beauty and so calm, so deep and warm in feeling that it is a joy.”

In 1951 de Vito recorded the Brahms violin concerto with the RIAS Orchestra under Ferenc Fricsay. An article in Time Magazine (1953) reports that she spent 11 years on the work before daring to play it in public and that she only solved one problematic passage to her satisfaction as late as 1950. De Vito made four recordings of this concerto, including a studio recording with Fricsay that is superlative. It can be found on the audite label remastered and released in 2009 (see http://www.audite.de).

In 1953 the Italian government decided to give de Vito a 1690 Stradivarius known as Il Toscano, but she turned down the offer saying that such a jewel should not belong to an individual but only to all humanity. Another Stradivarius, Il Bazzini, was loaned to her from a Hungarian collection. It seems it was easier to play by reason of its smaller dimensions compared to Il Toscano. In 1956, de Vito’s British husband, David Bicknell, a senior record producer with EMI, gave her a 1762 Ferdinand Gagliano, which she played until the end of her career.

In 1958 de Vito played the Mendelssohn violin concerto at Castel Gandolfo for Pope Pius XII, when she realised she had reached the pinnacle of her playing and decided to retire. She told the pope of her decision, who tried for an hour to dissuade her but to no avail. During the three years that remained of her career, de Vito collaborated with pianist Edwin Fischer, recording two of Brahms’ violin sonatas with him.

Gioconda de Vito retired from concert appearances in 1961. She never performed again and even preferred not to teach. On one occasion, on holiday in Greece, she chanced upon Yehudi Menuhin (with whom she had previously performed Bach’s Double Concerto) and agreed to play duets with him at his villa. When they got there, he realised he did not have a spare violin, so it came to nothing. Gioconda de Vito lived happily in retirement at her cottage in Hertfordshire, England, which became a haven for wildlife. She died in Rome in 1994.

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