Monday, August 27, 2007

Gioconda de Vito: centenary of an angel

Gioconda de Vito was my second-ever interviewee, twenty years ago. It was a piece for The Strad to mark her 80th birthday (published in the June 1987 edition); she died seven years later. This summer marks her centenary. I've seen her birthday cited variously as 22 June and 26 July.

I was young and impressionable at the time, but meeting this remarkable violinist remains one of my most treasured memories.

Madame de Vito spoke very little English, but had lived in Britain for decades. Her husband, David Bicknell, had been a producer and executive for EMI; the pair settled in a beautiful stone house on the outskirts of Rickmansworth, Hertfordshire, surrounded by countryside and an extensive garden through which a slender river flowed. My interview with her was conducted mainly via David's translation, but after tea she and I took a turn around the garden, during which I met her friends: the local animal population, from flocks of starlings to a family of swans, which she fed from huge cereal bowls on the bank of the stream, as well as squirrels that would eat nuts out of her hand, and some shy roe deer lurking in the wheatfield nearby.

Among the anecdotes that arose were tales of her impossibly early retirement from the violin. She had attended a recital by Cortot when the great pianist was way past his best; the result was a personal resolution not to fall into the trap of continuing too long. She was a deeply religious Catholic, moreover. Having played twice to the Pope, she decided she had reached the peak of her career and that that would be the end of it - even though the Pope himself spent an hour trying to talk her out of abandoning her God-given talent! She spent so long with him that members of her family, waiting to meet her outside, were afraid that she was lost somewhere inside the Vatican. She didn't miss her violin and never doubted that she'd done the right thing.

I'll never forget her eyes, which saw everything and understood life from the heart, language or none. If I ever met an angel in the music world, it was her.

Here is the 1987 article from my archive. And please enjoy her magical Beethoven and the informative film that appeared with it on Youtube only last week.