Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco (1895-1968)
The Italian composer, critic and pianist MarioCastelnuovo-Tedesco derived his family name from the Spanish district ofCastilla Nueva, from which his ancestors had been expelled in 1492, with thescattering of Sephardim throughout the Mediterranean world. Born in Florence in1895, he was introduced to music by his mother and in 1908 entered theCherubini Conservatory in Florence. He completed his piano studies with DelValle de Paz in 1914, and had become a composition pupil of Ildebrando Pizzettitwo years earlier, graduating in 1918. He then studied privately for thediploma in composition at Bologna Conservatory. He owed much to Pizzetti, whowas instrumental in introducing him to leading contemporary composers,including Alfredo Casella, who included Castelnuovo-Tedesco's 1916 Il raggioverde in his piano recitals.
In the period between the wars Castelnuovo-Tedescoestablished himself as a pianist, appearing as a soloist, accompanist andparticipant in chamber music, and as a critic for various musical journals. In1920 he won the prize offered by Il pianoforte for the best piano compositionwith his Cantico, Op.19. His compositions were also heard abroad, notably atthe festivals of the ISCM. After the racial legislation of 1938 and with thesupport of Heifetz, Toscanini and Albert Spalding, and with the assurance ofemployment, he moved to America. From 1940 to 1956 he worked for various filmstudios in Hollywood, contributing to some 250 productions. At the same time hecontinued his own work as a composer, with a series of some seventy works ofall kinds, including oratorios and cantatas, songs, operas, concertos, guitarmusic and compositions for the piano. His 1959 opera Il mercante di Venezia(The Merchant of Venice) won the La Scala Concorso internazionale Campari prizeand was given its first performance in Florence in 1961 at the Maggio musicale.His interest in Shakespeare is further suggested by his series of Shakespeareovertures, his Shakespeare songs (Marco Polo 8.223729), and his opera All'swell that ends well. Other works show his wide literary interests, from anopera based on Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest to the ballet TheBirthday of the Infanta, music for Pirandello's I giganti della montagna andsettings of Schiller, Keats, Wordsworth, Shelley, Heine and Petrarch. In 1946he had become an American citizen and until his death in 1968 he taught at thethen Los Angeles Conservatory, where his pupils included Henry Mancini, JerryGoldsmith, John T. Williams and Andre Previn.
Cipressi, Op.17, later transcribed by the composer fororchestra, is an evocative piece, suggested by the cypress trees at Usigliano,where he spent many summers, staying at the Villa Forti. In 1924 he marriedClara Forti, but the Forti family properties did not survive the depredationsafter 1938. Il raggio verde, Op.9, written in 1916, suggests the influence ofDebussy or Ravel in its musical language. The gently reflective Alghe, Op.12,composed in 1919, has a delicate simplicity in its suggestions of the sea,again with suggestions of contemporary French writing. I naviganti, Op.13,dates from the same year and is in a largely similar mood. These three worksform a trilogy of sea-pieces. Lucertolina, written in 1916, evokes the creatureof the title, the little lizard, later included in a Sonata zoologica.
La sirenetta e il pesce turchino, Op.18, the sea fable ofthe little mermaid, was the basis of a later ballet in 1937. Once againCastelnuovo-Tedesco depicts the sea, here in the terms of a fairy-story, inwhich the mermaid encounters the growing amatory difficulties usual to herkind, before the serene conclusion. To this the five little waltzes ofPassatempi, Op.54, offer a light-hearted contrast, the first an off-key Un pocomosso, leading to a second in burlesque mood. The third waltz is imbued withmelancholy and the fourth is pastoral in feeling. The dances end with amock-Viennese waltz.
Vitalba e Biancospino, Op.21, of 1921 takes itsstarting-point from the story of the two plants of the title, specifically theclematis and the common hawthorn, as so often suggesting the composer'sfacility in improvisation. The earlier Questo fu il carro della Morte, Op.2,was written in 1913, suggested by the Trionfi della Morte by Piero di Cosimo,as described by Vasari in his life of the painter. Epigrafe, written in 1922,is in a musical language that by now is familiar. It is here followed by theprize-winning Cantico, Op.19, of 1920, a piece written Per una statuetta diS.Bernadino di Niccol?? dell'Arca (For a statuette of St Bernardino by Niccol??dell'Arca), music that rises to a final dynamic climax in its reflection of thework of the fifteenth century artist.
(For much of the biographical information onCastelnuovo-Tedesco I am indebted to the article by Mila De Santis in Musik inGeschichte und Gegenwart, Personenteil Bd.IV, Barenreiter, 2000.)