Violinist Teresina Tua was a paradox. She bowled over some critics while boring the others. Some audiences loved her; others were indifferent. Most reviews take note of her smiling onstage presence, but the New York Times labeled her “manifestly depressed.” Newspapers described her as both young and old while simultaneously sexualizing and infantalizing her. Rachmaninoff wrote that she was “very stingy”, but by the end of her life she had given away her life’s earnings to charity.
Not much English language research is available on Teresina Tua, so it is difficult to judge for sure what is fact and what is fiction. But even though a veil is drawn over certain aspects of her story, the parts that have emerged are fascinating enough to make learning about her life and times worthwhile.
Teresina Tua was born 24 April 1866 in Turin, Italy. Her birthday was long believed – falsely – to be 22 May 1867. The Sophie Drinker Institut article on Tua claims this was due to a grim clerical error made when the Paris Conservatoire accidentally received the birth certificate for a younger Tua sister who died in infancy.
By all accounts the Tua family was poor but musical. Her father Antonio was a bricklayer who supplemented his income by teaching music and entertaining in cafés, while her mother Marianna was a guitarist.
When Teresina was young, Antonio taught himself popular arias on the violin. His daughter was intrigued, and so Antonio began teaching her, too. At the age of six, she came home from a performance of Bellini’s opera La sonnambula and began to play the themes that she had just heard. That same year she began performing in the coffee houses of Turin, accompanied by her mother on guitar.
Teresina was so strikingly precocious that her parents wondered if she might have a future in music. Their dreams had a very real precedent. Sisters Teresa and Maria Milanollo, also from northern Italy, had crashed through the violinistic glass ceiling a generation earlier, taking Europe by storm in the 1840s. Since then a handful of other women had also gained footholds as internationally respected concert artists: by the mid-1870s, for instance, Wilma Norman-Neruda was fostering a devoted audience in Britain, and Camilla Urso had already been a sensation in the United States for twenty years.
So at the age of seven, Teresina Tua embarked on a concert tour, traveling on foot with her family through northern Italy, Switzerland, and the Côte d’Azur. The Tuas ended up spending three winters in Nice playing for tourists. Teresina began studying with a Louis Spohr pupil, as well as taking language lessons in hopes of a future international career.
According to legend, during one of these winters in Nice, a wealthy Russian woman heard Teresina play. She wrote a letter of recommendation to Lambert Massart, a leading violin professor at the Paris Conservatoire. Although relatively obscure today, Massart was a force of nineteenth-century violin pedagogy, and his pupils included such superstars as Henryk Wieniawski, Pablo de Sarasate, Eugène Ysaÿe, and Fritz Kreisler.
Thanks to the letter, in 1877, an eleven-year-old Teresina was accepted at the Conservatoire, where she studied for three years. Not surprisingly, these Parisian studies did not come cheaply, and unfortunately the Italian embassy declined to issue her a scholarship. She was in danger of becoming a dropout until Massart intervened and asked a group of ten friends to pay a monthly fee on her behalf, along with her family’s living expenses. Eventually Élisabeth de Mac Mahon, the first lady of France, along with Queen Isabella of Spain, stepped in to champion Teresina.
The support paid off. In 1879 she won a second prize, then in 1880 she won (by unanimous vote) the coveted Grand Prix for violin. She graduated at the age of fourteen. According to an article in North’s Philadelphia Musical Journal, “The French papers of the time went wild about her style, technic and repose, and her beautiful face and graceful figure.” From an early age, she faced sexualization by the press.
Upon her graduation, she found herself at the cusp of an international career, and consequently the early 1880s became a blur of travel. The Sophie Drinker Institut article reports that she had to turn down a lucrative American offer due to a left hand injury, but she did embark on a tour of Europe in 1881.
In Italy she met a thirty-three-year-old aristocratic music critic who went by the name of Ippolito Valetta. He had trained as a lawyer but had recently devoted himself to writing about and promoting music. Like so many others, he was charmed by the teenage violinist and used his platform to promote her. (Valetta would resurface in her life a few years later.)
The triumphs kept piling up. She gave twenty concerts in Rome alone. In Genoa, Verdi himself praised her, calling her Paganini’s spiritual heir. In 1887 Brainards’ Musical World breathlessly claimed that a Genoese impresario wanted to engage her for two years at 15,000 francs a month. (If the offer ever existed, she didn’t accept it.) In Venice, the Queen of Hanover wrote an introduction to Joseph Joachim for her, which served as her entry to the starry music scene of 1880s Berlin.
From Italy she traveled to Germany and Austria. She was represented by impresario Alfred Fischhof, who reportedly paid the girl 250,000 francs to give two years of concerts. She played not only publicly, but privately, receiving a medallion from the Crown Prince Friedrich III in Potsdam. She also played in Berlin to rave reviews (“few artistes live who can so touch their listeners,” gushed critic Otto Gumprecht), receiving expensive gifts from the Court of Berlin. Despite the glitz and glamour, the high point of the tour came when Joseph Joachim himself praised Teresina’s playing. (After his death, she wrote a long article about his life. Unfortunately, to the best of my knowledge, it hasn’t been translated from Italian.)
From Germany she trekked to Austria. According to the Brainards’ Musical World profile, demand to see her was so high in Vienna that she filled the Opera House, which hadn’t been used for a concert since the days of Paganini.
The fairy tale came to an abrupt halt in September of 1883 when Marianna Tua died unexpectedly. Teresina was seventeen. Late that month the Glasgow Herald reported:
The news has been received in London of the distressing suicide of the mother of Mdlle. Teresina Tua, the clever young violinist who won so great a success during the last summer season here. The lady, it appears, had domestic troubles, and in the brief absence of her family she deliberately burnt herself to death in the villa of the Marquis Gavetti at Muitado.
There isn’t any more available in English about this horrific tragedy, but it suggests a dark side of Teresina’s family life and upbringing that the British and American press never touched. Reeling from the loss, Teresina canceled a series of concerts in Italy and went into mourning.
After a pause, her career resumed in 1885. The Musical Standard reported in February, “Teresina Tua is giving concerts in Sweden with enormous success.” The Sophie Drinker Institut article reports that she made a tour of 60 concerts that year with pianist Marie Benois. The following summer she appeared with accompanist Helene Geißler in a series of concerts at German seaside resorts.
In 1886 she visited composer Edvard Grieg, who was stuck in a profound creative rut. Inspired by Tua’s playing and personality (he famously called her “the little fiddle-fairy on my troll-hill”), he began work on his third violin sonata. Today it is his best-known work in the genre, and it ended up being the last piece of chamber music he ever wrote.
Despite her frenetic tours of Europe, she clearly had an ambition to conquer America. In November 1885 rumors circulated in the press that she had signed with Henry Klein to give an American tour at the price of £10,000, but those rumors never became reality. She ultimately signed with Herman Colell in the summer of 1887. The deal led to her profile in Brainards’ Musical World that July, which reported that “she will arrive in this country in October and give one hundred and twenty concerts.”
It wasn’t to be, and Teresina Tua’s American tour turned into a debacle. Without more research it’s difficult to understand exactly why, so one has to read between the lines of English-language sources and hypothesize. That said, years after the fact, The Etude magazine had this to say:
Teresina Tua’s visit to the United States, in 1887, proved the first in a series of misfortunes which resulted in her retirement to private life. Feeble health, combined with wretched mismanagement, destroyed all possibilities of success in the United States. What should have been a most brilliant and profitable season proved only a dismal fiasco. She appeared at few concerts, and the critics, as well as the public, withheld from her the homage to which she had grown accustomed. She returned to Europe quite disheartened, if not embittered, with her experience in America, and not long after she decided to abandon the concert stage altogether.
Poring over her American reviews for clues about what went wrong, one aspect of the coverage that leaps out again and again is how critics (and perhaps her manager Colell) perceived her as, first and foremost, a sexual object. Nearly every single American advertisement refers to her physical appearance. This happens much more frequently to Tua than it did to, say, her contemporary, American violinist Maud Powell.
From the New York Tribune, 3 July 1887…
From the Rush Center Gazette, 8 September 1887…
From the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 16 October 1887…
The overwhelming emphasis on her appearance continued even in her reviews. The New York Evening World wrote on 18 October:
Signorina Teresina Tua, dimpled, smiling, bare-armed and be-satined, appeared at Chickering Hall last night in a not very original impersonation of the Patti of the violin. There is not the least doubt that she created a very favorable impression, and if the charms of her personal appearance had anything to do with that creation, who will blame her for magnifying it as much as possible? Tua is a brilliant violinist, and there is a recklessness in her method which fascinates, perhaps, more than it legitimately ought to do. There is a want of neatness about her rapid passages which is rather annoying, and she scrambles over them as though anxious to leave them behind. The slower passages Tua plays deliciously and on the andante last night she was heard at her best. Her audience was enthusiastic. Alexander Lambert, and an orchestra under Mr. Van der Stucken, aided Signorina Tua.
On the 20th, the Hartford Courant ran a review dripping with boorishness. “It is not criminal to be over thirty years of age,” the critic declared. “But it is reckless to permit one’s managers to declare through the public press that twenty summers alone have passed over the head, when a dozen more (with winters in addition) have done so… Teresina is thirty-one – two? Five? And time has not dealt lightly with her.” Of course the reviewer had no idea what he was saying; Teresina was legitimately twenty-one at the time.
This fair signorina, robed in shimmering satin, decorated with orders, and insignia from the queen of Spain, and the empress of Russia and the sultan of Turkey, all faithfully produced as advertised, possesses a fine bow arm, (an essential of violin playing) which she graciously permitted to be viewed undraped. Her handsome brown eyes fairly glowed with enthusiasm, her lips wreathed with smiles; not Patti in her most splendid triumphs ever greeted her audience with such inimitable coquetry.
Toward the end of the review, two sentences were granted to discuss her playing: “She is a brilliant performer full of surprises, but is often false; always superficial. Her annunciation of rapid passages is seldom finished, and at times is unintelligible.”
For whatever reason, at her next performance Teresina toned down her coquettish act (if indeed it was an act). But critics complained about that too:
Signorina Teresina Tua, the Italian violinist, gave the first of two recitals at Chickering Hall last evening. The bustle and glitter of the first night were gone; the powerful accessory of orchestral support was lacking, and the life and spirits of the young players had fled with them. Tua was manifestly depressed, and she had even put on an unbecoming costume and left her diamonds at home with her smiles and coquetry. Tua should not abandon all these necessary adjuncts to her attractiveness and look unhappy just because she has not overwhelmed the New York public with her greatness. She should devote herself to her art with renewed vigor, and try to play the violin a great deal better than she did last night, or the New York public will not go to hear her at all. Her playing last night was utterly devoid of sense or sentiment and without the slightest spark of brilliancy. It was mechanical to a painful degree, and the applause of the audience was by no means enthusiastic. A genuine artist is always true to art and never slights work. Signorina Tua ought to bear that lesson in mind.
– New York Times, 22 October 1887
In contrast to the critics, the audience seemed appreciative. The New York Evening Sun reported on the 23rd:
Teresina Tua, the Italian violinist, who made a successful American debut in New York last Monday night, is a handsome girl of, say 25, with graceful manners and an engaging personality that must make her admired wherever she and her violin may travel. She was almost royally greeted by a crowded house, which treated her to indiscriminate encores and continuous applause.
After the press debacle in New York, Teresina traveled to Boston. Puzzlingly an article appeared in the Burlington Free Press on November 5th that “Miss Teresina Tua’s illness has increased and…her physician has ordered to take complete rest. Her appearance in N.Y. is therefore postponed until she has recovered sufficiently to resume her tour.” But that week she was onstage in Boston (albeit performing to a small audience). On the 12th the Salina Semi Weekly Journal wrote that “Signorina Teresina Tua is reported to be seriously ill, owing to climatic changes.” Apparently she recovered enough to travel; later in the month she was in Baltimore, then in Philadelphia.
In a column credited to New York’s Mail and Express that was later syndicated across the country, her press coverage turned a corner from being irritating to disturbing. Run under the headline “Oh! That Arm!”, it suggests that Tua was a potential target for sexual harassment or maybe even assault by a particular subset of male fans:
The young men about town are very much delighted over the fact that Sunday concerts have been resumed at the Casino. They get so in the habit of going to that handsome establishment at night that when the sun sets on the Sabbath afternoon and they find the Casino doors cruelly closed against them they get rattled for the remainder of the evening, drink a whole glass of beer and stagger off to bed. The Sunday evening concerts have furnished them with a new excitement, and on Sunday, therefore, instead of busily discussing the relative merits of chorus girls, they have gone into the question of music. Not that it is intimated at all that there is no music in comic opera, but they have gone into the question of instrumental music, of violin music, of the music for which two such graceful musical beings as Teresina Tua and Nettie Carpenter are responsible. The discussions have been frequent and have been carried on not only in the Casino itself, but away down the stairs and along the tortuous passages which lead through a neighboring hotel into the remote and almost inaccessible bar-room. Of course Tua is the older of the two fair violinists and the more mature in her style. There is a certain dash of brilliancy about what she does that is very captivating. Her smile is declared to be quite as sweet as the softest passages in the musical compositions which she interprets. Her arm, these young men assert, is a model of loveliness and among several of them the present desire of their lives is to have a plaster cast of it, and failing, at least, to secure that, they want a photograph. A photographer who has made quite a hit of late photographing the fair hands of ladies around town has been very busy through emissaries and representatives trying to induce fair Tua to hold up her arm before the camera, but has not succeeded in persuading her as yet. One youthful enthusiast brought a small pocket camera to the Casino concert some two weeks ago, intent on getting a picture of the arm any way, but the lights and shadows were so unfavourable that the exquisite outline of Signorina Tua’s arm transferred to the plate bore more resemblance to the arm of Barnum’s fat woman than anything else in the world.
On December 18th, word leaked that Teresina Tua’s American tour was over. The Brooklyn Daily Eagle wrote:
Manager Colell has paid Teresina Tua $5,000 to release him from his contract. She has not been so great a success as he had hoped, and she will settle down as a violin teacher in New York.
Before the end of the year, Teresina Tua left America. Upon her departure she gave a defiant interview, portions of which were also syndicated throughout the American press.
Why stay here in America, which I admit frankly I like not, when in Europe engagements, yes, scores of engagements, are waiting for me. There, too, I am prime favorite, socially as well as artistically. I will not stay. Things are much too dull here.
It seems the full story of her aborted tour has yet to be uncovered.
She ultimately returned to Italy and became involved with her former champion, music critic Ippolito Valetta, eighteen years her senior. They were married in 1889 and settled down in Rome. She quickly became pregnant. While expecting, she gave a series of farewell concerts in London, Turin, and Germany, clearly anticipating the end of her professional life.
The Musical World reported in September of 1890 that “Miss Teresina Tua, the gifted violiniste, is seriously indisposed.” There was no elaboration. On September 10th the Baltimore Sun reported that she had just given birth to twins. She had a boy and a girl. In a gut punch of tragedy, her daughter died in infancy and her son died at the age of four.
Consequently, her planned retirement didn’t last long. In 1891 she gave concerts in Italy, and after the birth and death of her twins, she returned to the stage in earnest.
She made a hugely ambitious and grueling tour of Russia in 1895, making her the first female violinist to tour Siberia. She hired as accompanist a twenty-two-year-old pianist named Sergei Rachmaninoff, who wrote to a friend:
At the first concert, in Lodz, against my anticipation, I played pretty well. I had a great success, but she – the Contessa Teresina Tua Franchi-Verney della Valetta – had, of course, an even greater success. Incidentally, she does not play particularly well; her technique is middling. But with her eyes and smiles she plays magnificently for the public. As an artist she is not serious but she has talent. I can bear, without too much irritation, her sweet smiles before the audience, her breaks on high notes, her fermata (a la Mazzini). I’ve learned one thing about her: she is very stingy. She is charming to me – very afraid that I’ll scamper away.
(He ultimately did scamper away, saying his advance had not been paid as promised.)
In an ironic twist, years later Rachmaninoff made a benchmark recording of the Grieg violin sonata that Teresina had inspired, along with her fellow Massart student Fritz Kreisler on violin.
She continued traveling throughout the 1890s. She returned to Russia several times (bringing her husband to serve as accompanist instead). She came back to London in January 1897. That year she also performed with Joachim and Alfredo Piatti to celebrate the hundredth birthday of Donizetti.
But after the turn of the century, she gave fewer and fewer concerts. Instead she helped her husband in his concert presentation work, hosting evenings devoted to chamber music and promoting young artists and new music.
Ippolito Valetta died in 1911. Two years later, on 9 February 1913, she married author, publisher, and politician Count Emilio Quadrio de Maria Pontaschielli. That year they began building a luxurious villa in Sondrio named the Villa Sondrio, which boasted a central hall with deliberately top-notch acoustics.
Teresina Tua’s last public performance as violinist occurred in Trieste in 1915 during WWI. (She walked onstage dressed patriotically and pointedly in the colors of the Italian flag.) But she didn’t step completely away from music; she taught violin and viola at the Milan Conservatory from 1911 to 1924 and then at the Accademia di Santa Cecilia in Rome from 1925 to 1934.
She also pursued interests outside of music, working as a nurse during WWI. Her devoted service and concern for the injured earned her recognition from the Minister of War, the Minister of the Interior, and the Red Cross.
Her second husband passed away in 1933, and her later years were spent liquidating their estate and looking inward. She donated the villa they had built to the city of Sondrio; today it is used as a library. She also sold her famous jewels to fund scholarships for impoverished students (a nod to her own humble beginnings, perhaps), and also gave her instruments and bows to conservatories in Turin and in Rome. She donated the rest of her possessions to the church and to charity.
Teresina Tua joined the Convent of Eternal Worship in 1940, taking the name Sister Maria di Gesù. She passed away on October 28, 1956.
Today if Teresina Tua is remembered at all, it’s for inspiring Grieg’s sonata, or for being a classmate of Debussy’s and a pedagogical sibling of Kreisler’s, or for hiring a young Rachmaninoff as accompanist. Her story always appears adjacent to a man’s. But her biography by itself is obviously fascinating in its own right, and it grants us a hugely valuable (if at times deeply unsettling) glimpse into how the American press of the 1880s treated the rise and fall of a foreign female violinist.
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Here is a list of sources:
“Tua, (Maddalena Maria) Teresina Theresa Teresa ver. Countess Franchi-Verney della Valetta, inter. Countess Franchi Quadrio” from the Sophie Drinker Institut website, written by Christine Fornoff, Freia Hoffman
Guide to Sonatas: Music for One or Two Instruments, edited by Melvin Berger
“Music and the Drama”, The Glasgow Herald, 24 September 1883 (on the death of Tua’s mother)
“Telegraphic Summary, Etc.”, Baltimore Sun, 10 September 1890 (on the birth of Tua’s twins)
“From Our London Correspondent”, The Leeds Mercury, 21 December 1896 (on the death of Tua’s twins)
The Strad, “Violinists Abroad”, July 1895 (on the death of Tua’s twins)
Page 10, New York Tribune, 3 July 1887 (preview of Tua’s American debut)
“Stage Gossip”, Rush Center Gazette, 8 September 1887 (preview of Tua’s American debut)
“Theaters and Music: The Tua Concert”, Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 16 October 1887 (preview of Tua’s American debut)
“Fresh Plays on the Boards”, The Evening World, 18 October 1887 (review)
“Teresina Tua – Her Violin and Her Years”, Hartford Courant, 20 October 1887 (review mentioning her supposedly advanced age)
“Tua’s First Recital”, New York Times, 22 October 1887 (review mentioning her debut)
“Musical Matters”, Buffalo Sunday Morning News, 23 October 1887
“Drama and Concert”, The Boston Globe, 4 November 1887 (on her upcoming Boston concerts)
“Art and Theatrical Notes”, The Burlington Free Press, 5 November 1887 (on her illness)
“Musical Melange”, The Salina Semi-Weekly Journal, 12 November 1887 (on her illness)
Page 2, The Buffalo Commercial, 19 November 1887 (on her anemic Boston attendance)
“The Tua Concerts”, The Baltimore Sun, 25 November 1887 (on her Baltimore performance)
“Oh! That Arm!: Some Chat about Two Fair Violinists”, The Buffalo Commercial, 9 December 1887
Page 6, The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 18 December 1887 (on her being released from her American contract)
“Chat of the Stage”, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 22 December 1887 (on her not going to St. Louis and instead returning to Europe)
Joseph Joachim: ricordi e note, by Teresina Tua