Guila Adelina Teressina Bustabo was born on February 25, 1916 in Manitowoc, Wisconsin. Both Bustabo’s parents were violinists, her father of Italian extraction, her mother (maiden name Kaderabek) Bohemian. On her mother’s side she had a long and uninterrupted line of violinist ancestors. It was from her father that she received her first violin lessons. When, at the age of two and a half, Guila asked for a violin, her father cut up a cigar box, and both parents started to teach her on it. Not for long: Guila stamped on it in a rage and demanded a “proper violin”, whereupon her father carved a tiny rosewood fiddle engraved with her initials in gold script. Within 18 months, the family had moved 200 miles to Chicago so that she could study with Ray Huntington at the Chicago Musical College. Before she was five, she was studying with Leon Samétini, a pupil of Ysaÿe. At the age of five, she won a local competition with the Bach A minor concerto, whereupon Samétini secured a scholarship for her in New York. Studies with Louis Persinger at the Juilliard School followed her sensational debut there on November 2, 1929. Bustabo played for the first time at Carnegie Hall in New York.
She performed the 1st mvt. of Wieniawski’s Violin Concerto No. 1 in F-sharp Minor with the New York Philharmonic under Ernest Schelling, and became an immediate sensation. In fact she was the special protégé of the American conductor Ernest Schelling (1976-1939).
Schelling invited her for further performances in his series of New York Philharmonic Young People’s Concerts:
• December 6, 1930 – Mozart: Violin Concerto in A Major, K. 219: Allegro aperto (i)
• March 18, 1933 – Tchaikovsky: Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 35: Allegro moderato (i)
• December 16, 1933 – Mozart: Violin Concerto in D Major, K. 218: Allegro (i)
And supervised the European tour that she did in 1936. Her first debut recital was on December 15, 1932 with her teacher Louis Persinger at the piano (Carnegie Hall):
• Sinding: Suite im alten Stil in A Minor, Op. 10
• Bach: Adagio & Fuga from Solo Sonata No. 3 in C Major, BWV 1005
• Goldmark: Violin Concerto in A Minor, Op. 28
• Chausson: Poème, Op. 25
• Paganini: I palpiti, Op. 13
When she was presented to Sir Thomas Beecham in Chicago, he expressed the hope that one day he would have the pleasure of presenting her on the concert platform in England. This she did on the I5th March, 1936, with the London Philharmonic Orchestra under his baton at Queen’s Hall. Her ambition was to become as great as Kreisler. And Kreisler’s opinion of her was that she will be the greatest violinist of her time. Bustabo was described in her youth as: “A very serious-minded young lady, and in addition to her study of music has found time to attain more than a superficial knowledge of theology, philosophy, and poetry.” She sailed for Europe in 1934. She was invited by the Queen Marie of Romania to play a private concert at the Palace Cotreccini and throughout the continent and in England she appeared as guest soloist with Willem Mengelberg and the Amsterdam Concertgebouw, Hermann Abendroth and the Berlin Philharmonic, Albert Coates and the London Symphony and had been invited to perform the Sibelius Concerto in Helsinki and she also had a personal appointment to visit and play for Sibelius in 1937.
Her reminiscences of the visit she made to see Sibelius were full of insights:
“Maestro Sibelius lived in a beautiful villa in Jarvenpaa. The villa was very large, comfortable, warm, but the garden was desolate. It was early winter and all the flowers, plants and trees were frozen over, and it was very cold with ice and snow. My mother and I obtained a taxi and left for Maestro Sibelius’s villa. We were provided with furs to keep us warm, and I placed my Guarneri del Jesu under the fur robe to try and keep it warm. We spoke no Finnish and the driver spoke no English. My mother was uneasy, thinking that we might be kidnapped in this wilderness. Maestro Sibelius’s wife, Aino, met us at the door and escorted my mother and me to meet the Maestro. She spoke some English, as did the Maestro. He offered us some Turkish coffee with cream, and refreshments. I still had not completely recovered from the dysentery and after I tasted that brew I felt sure I would get sick and pass out. In addition, he took out one of his great big cigars and began smoking it, which almost put me out. Maestro Sibelius was completely bald. He had intense, beautiful, piercing blue eyes, and he had several deep furrows between his eyebrows. Since I was not feeling so well with the Turkish coffee, the cigar smoke and the recent typhoid, I decided I had better play immediately, before I got sick. I had a soprano voice and had I not studied the violin, I probably would have sung opera. [in fact, I have studied opera since then.] I always sang the accompanying themes when I played the violin in practice, so I decided to play the Sibelius Violin Concerto and at the same time sing the accompaniment together with the violin. As I was playing the violin and singing the accompaniment, I noted that Maestro Sibelius’s eyes were welling up with tears and, by the time I finished the first movement, he was weeping uncontrollably. Upon finishing the first movement, I was worried that I had done something wrong; but as soon as I finished, he told me that I had played it exactly as he had ‘envisioned it when he had composed it’. I then played the second and third movements, again singing the accompaniment, and he was profoundly touched by the performance. Maestro Sibelius embraced me before we left and kissed me on both sides of my face. Mother and I then took a cab to Helsinki, where I then played the Sibelius concerto. Maestro Sibelius listened to it on the radio, as he was unable to attend the live performance. As I remember, I played the Sibelius with the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra. The ovation was enormous at the end. And then two ushers came down the centre aisle, carrying a wooden tub containing two dozen large pink roses. I kept three of the roses for years in a small silver box. I subsequently played the Sibelius concerto at least two dozen times, including a performance with Sir Thomas Beecham and the London Symphony Orchestra. As a result of my performance of the Sibelius in Helsinki [after I returned to Europe after the Australian Tour, during 1938], Maestro Sibelius later arranged through his daughter with the Finnish Consulate in Berlin that when his concerto was recorded , it would be with Guila Bustabo as soloist. This was done in early 1940 with the Städtisches Orchestra, and Fritz Zaun conducting. Many years later, around 1955, the ‘Finnish Eagle’, as Sibelius was called, asked the concert agency about Guila Bustabo and requested that she come back to Finland. When I returned in 1956, I repeated the concerto with the Helsinki Philharmonic. It was known, after my first visit to Sibelius, that he had entrusted painter-friend, Wettenhovi-Aspa, paint an oil painting of me from a photograph Sibelius had, and it had been hanging in his villa for 20 years. Another remembrance is that [in 1956] Sibelius made me promise that I would not fly again. He feared that I and my mother would crash, as had Ginnette Neveu, Jacques Thibaud and Grace Moore, with the Prince of Sweden. I kept this promise faithfully until September 1988. The promise was formally absolved by the Church, by the Priest, saying it was not wilful disobedience but actually necessity for business–and the Priest added the Church blessing at the end, before I made a trip to Switzerland to settle some business. A partly forgotten fact [from 1936]: I asked Maestro Sibelius for an autograph, and his wife found me a photo, on which he wrote in English, ‘to Guila Bustabo, the genius interpreter of my concerto, with admiration, J. S.’ it was lost during the war, in London, where I left much music, my clothes and personal possessions in Cook’s Warehouse. In 1961, after I played the Sibelius concerto, the Ensio Merkia was given to me–after the musicians gave me a standing ovation called the ‘touche’-the brass section standing up and playing a fanfare. The fanfare was repeated later, in Stockholm and Copenhagen. In 1938/39 she appeared again with the New York Philharmonic under John Barbirolli. The Dvorak Violin Concerto on February 13, 1938, and the Sibelius Violin Concerto on January 8, 1939. Mother and daughter arrived in Paris before the occupation of May 1940, and there the composer Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari chanced upon them. He took them into his home in Switzerland, composed a concerto for Bustabo and became her recital partner on tours of Scandinavia, Germany, Italy and Spain. In occupied Amsterdam in October 1940, she played Bruch’s G minor concerto with Willem Mengelberg and the Concertgebouw Orchestra. During the war years, Bustabo played almost exclusively in all the Nazi-occupied territories in Europe.
In 1941 she appeared for the Nazi organization “Kraft durch Freude”, the National Socialist Organization “Strength through Joy” in Vienna with the Vienna Symphony under Hans Weisbach. And in 1943 for the same organization with the Gau-Sinfonie-Orchester Niederdonau under Robert Kolisko. It is unclear whether her mother somehow managed to hide from her daughter the political crassness of performing in axis territories, or whether Guila was a true naif. When they arrived back in Paris after the liberation of 1944, General Patton requisitioned Bustabo to play for the US troops – until he learned of her wartime career, and arrested her. But her subsequent de-Nazification did not prevent most US orchestras from declining to have her back. She once returned again to perform with the New York Philharmonic under Rudolph Ganz in the Mendelssohn Concerto on January 10, 1948 and she continued to tour Europe throughout the 1950s and 60s. Her marriage to Edison Stieg in 1949, a military bandmaster, ended in divorce in 1976. In 1964, Bustabo settled in Innsbruck as professor of violin at the conservatoire. When bipolar disorder led to her retirement in 1970, Gordon Andrews, music director of the Alabama Symphony, invited her to join the orchestra, where 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. Feeling a pain in her shoulder, she went to the doctor. “You’re sitting all wrong,” he explained, before being interrupted by a scream of outrage from Bustabo’s ever-present mother: “Don’t you know who you’re talking to?” she demanded. “This is Guila Bustabo.” Guila, it transpired, had not played in an orchestra before, so had never learnt to play while seated. Her mother finally died in 1992.
Guila Bustabo herself died on April 27, 2002, in her two-room apartment in Birmingham, Alabama, at age 86.
© Michael Waiblinger 2014
The violinist William F. Hassay had played with Bustabo in the first violin section of the Alabama Symphony:
“I played from 1980 to 1993, the first five years were when Guila was in the section. As we had a revolving section, and there were only 11 to 13 players in the section, a goodly part of that time, I was a stand partner with Guila. She was very difficult to work with, but she was an amazing talent. Her abilities with the solo violin literature were absolutely amazing. If there was a violinist soloist that was late to rehearsal. Guila could play the concerto on the spur of the moment, whatever it was. To hear her sing the first violin part to a Mozart violin concerto, simultaneously as she played the solo part amazing. She did play the Khachaturian Violin Concerto in concert with us…and she was totally spot on form, absolutely scintillating, every note crystal clear, and nailed. I had tears in my eyes while we were playing it, because I knew that the amazing performance was not recorded, and was lost. She blew us all away, her technique was second to nobody, ever! Yet, when it came to playing in a section, being able to play in a section, she was totally lost. Also, she was astonishingly unfamiliar with the basic orchestra standards for example: “Brahms 4th symphony, what is this piece?” She was not really capable of blending, of having the musicality of playing in a section…she was a liability to a regional Orchestra.
An incident occurred, Henryk Szeryng came and played a concert with us, she had “NO CLUE” who he was and never heard of him. But he knew who she was, and was absolutely shocked to find here there playing in the section and he just had to meet her. Her mother was absolute life smothering to Guila, and was constantly with Guila everywhere almost she went. Guila never really had a life. She never talked about her time during the war, it was always a mystery to us, except we knew where her career had been. She was to us totally unpolitical, and oblivious to everything except solo violin playing. I have no doubt that she was totally clueless to the events in the world and in Europe when she was there. Her bipolar illness was very apparent, she could be so manic and hyped up. I remember driving her to a rehearsal about an hour away, and a friend and I had to listen to her prattle on about a recent doctor’s visit, she was having difficulty swallowing. After an hour of nonstop talking from her, she informed us that the doctor had recommended putting a rubber hose down her throat. I don’t know how accurate she was about the doctor’s recommendation but we were all for it! Her career was not derailed by what happened in Germany, but in my opinion, was derailed by her mental illness. And I am sure she had quite a bit of frustration, and anger added into the mix. I can’t say that I would blame her for that, either. It was her bipolar illness that closed all doors for her, she was impossible to cope with.”