Mario CASTELNUOVO-TEDESCO (1895-1968)
Suite nello Stile Italiano, Op.138 [19:41]
Six Pieces in form of Canons, Op.156 [19:22]
Ricercare from Greeting Cards, op.170 [6:44]
Angelo Arciglione (piano)
rec. 2019, Area DIG, Molfetta, Italy.
DIGRESSIONE MUSIC DCTT100 [45:47]
I have long had a soft spot for the music of Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco and been somewhat surprised that more people don’t share my fondness for it. His father’s family were Sephardic Jews whose ancestors were forced to leave Spain around 1492, when so many Jews and Moors were expelled. Those ancestors sailed to Livorno on the Tuscan coast and made their home in Tuscany. They adopted a family name which was a corruption of the Spanish ‘Nueva Castile’, an echo of their place of origin. Some three generations before the birth of the future composer, a daughter of the family married one Samuel Tedesco a banker (both families were bankers). The couple had no children and left their money and property to Angelo Castelnuovo, the composer’s paternal grandfather, on condition that he adopt the name of Tedesco too. The family of the composer’s mother (née Noemi Senigaglia) traced their ancestry back to the Jews of Ancient Rome.
Born in Florence, the young Mario’s musical talents were soon obvious; he was writing music before he was ten. While in his early teens he studied piano and composition at the Conservatorio di Musica Luigi Cherubini in Florence. One of his early teachers was Ildebrando Pizzetti. Initially he wrote small-scale works, but by the 1920s his larger-scale works were being performed. His opera La Mandragola was premiered in 1923. Four years later Toscanini conducted the premiere, in New York, of Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s Symphonic Variations. Heifetz gave performances of his two violin concertos and Piatigorsky was the soloist in the American premiere of his cello concerto. In 1932 he met Segovia and was encouraged by the guitarist to write something for him; a whole series of works followed, including his first guitar concerto, now widely played. However, the promising trajectory of the composer’s career was soon disrupted by the worsening political situation.
There was little or no element of anti-Semitism in the early years of Mussolini’s fascist doctrines. As the 1930s went on, however, Mussolini’s desire for an alliance with Hitler led him to adopt (primarily for such political reasons) much of Hitler’s anti-semitic rhetoric and ideology. In July of 1938 Mussolini passed into law the Manifesto della razza (Manifesto of Race), which enacted a number of anti-Jewish laws (one of which forbade the public performance in Italy of music by Jewish composers). On July 13th of the following year Castelnuovo-Tedesco was able to leave Italy (he, along with his wife Clara and their two sons, sailed from Trieste) and make his way to the USA (assisted by both Heifetz and Toscanini, to whom he had written from Switzerland, fearing that any letters posted in Italy would be intercepted). Of the moment of departure from Italy, Castelnuovo-Tedesco wrote, in his autobiography: “What I felt at that moment […] cannot be called sorrow, regret or spiritual suffering. It was an almost physical torment, a tearing asunder, a mutilation. It seemed to be a dress rehearsal for Death” (quoted from Harvey Sachs, Music in Fascist Italy (London, 1987, p.18). The composer lived in New York initially, before settling in California. With further help from Heifetz he was given a contract as a composer of film scores by MGM. He also taught, both privately and at the Los Angeles Conservatory. His pupils included André Previn, Henry Mancini, Nelson Riddle, Marty Paich and John Williams. He became an American Citizen in 1946.
The view has been expressed more than once that Castelnuevo-Tedesco “showed exceptional gifts in his youth, but that he failed to bring them to full fruition” (Lewis Stevens, Composers of Classical Music of Jewish Descent, 2003, p.143) and this has led to some rather sweeping dismissals of most of the works he composed in the USA. While it must be conceded that Castelnuevo-Tedesco didn’t always do full justice to himself (which artist ever did?) and that he was sometimes the victim of his own remarkable facility, such judgements have (even allowing for the enormous disruption of his inner life caused by his exile from Italy) been too readily accepted and some fine works overlooked in the process.
Castelnuovo-Tedesco was a man of wide (and deep) culture. A large percentage of his compositions relate to other artist or works of art, some musical, many literary. One academic (Nick Rossi) who became a friend of the composer recalled him thus: “Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco was not only the kindest and most generous man I have ever known; he was also the most brilliant. Easily conversant in more than a half-dozen languages, he was intimately acquainted with all the major works of literature in their original languages: Greek, Latin, Italian, Spanish, French, English, German and Hebrew. He knew well the masterpieces of western art […] and could describe in detail the galleries, churches and museums in which they could be found. And, of course, his knowledge of music was profound” (‘Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco’. American Music Teacher 25 (4), 1976, p.13).
One might, of course, take a slightly cynical view of such comments – regarding them as the idealising of an admired friend. But the evidence of Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s compositions themselves confirms his responsive familiarity with a great range of western culture. Only a few examples can be mentioned here. Amongst his response to the visual arts the most musically satisfying is the 24 Caprichos de Goya (1961), for guitar, written in dialogue with Los Caprichos Goya’s masterly and savagely satirical set of prints produced at the end of the 1790s. Castelnuovo-Tedesco wrote tributes to musical figures throughout his career, such as his ‘English Suite for harpsicord or piano: Homage to Dr. Thomas Augustus Arne’ (1909), the ‘Sonata (Homage to Boccherini)’(1934), his ‘Diabolical Capriccio (Homage to Paganini)’ (1935), the Homage to Paderewski’ (1941), and, of course the ‘Ricercare sul nome di Luigi Dallapiccola’ (1959) recorded on the present CD. He set texts (in their original languages) by, to name but a few: Dante, Alfred De Musset, Virgil, Shelley, Cervantes, Heine, Byron, Whitman, Horace, Petrarch, Du Bellay, Valéry, D.H. Lawrence, Verlaine, Wordsworth, Thomas Nashe, Sir Walter Scott, Cavalcanti, Milton and Keats. In all the examples with which I am familiar he sets these texts perceptively, and with an evident understanding of how the poems work in the various languages. An interest in the work of Oscar Wilde prompted two compositions by Castelnuovo-Tedesco, The Birthday of the Infanta: A Ballet Suite from a tale by Oscar Wilde (1941/2) and the Chamber Opera, The Importance of Being Earnest (1962). One modern scholar, Professor Gordon McMullan of the Shakespeare Centre at King’s College, London has written that “Castelnuovo-Tedesco had an ongoing fascination – even obsession – with the works of William Shakespeare” (Booklet notes, Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco: Shakespeare Sonnets, RESONUS RES10141). He wrote a series of overtures (in some cases they might better be described as symphonic poems) for eleven of the plays; he set most of the songs in the plays; in 1944 and 1945 he wrote attractive settings of 35 of Shakespeare’s sonnets. He composed two Shakespeare operas, All’s Well That Ends Well and The Merchant of Venice. Although he also had some reservations, Winton Dean found things to praise in Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s Merchant: “It is eminently theatrical, richly scored, unafraid of dance rhythms, catchy tunes and romantic harmony, and adept at creating atmosphere, especially in the Belmont and trial scenes” (in Shakespeare in Music, 1964, ed. Phyllis Hartnoll, pp. 132-33). The most important of Dean’s reservations concerns what he calls a “leaning towards the second-hand”, i.e. the overuse of echoes of, allusions to, the music of earlier composers. This is, of course, the downside of Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s extensive cultural knowledge.
All of the works on this disc belong to Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s years in the USA. They are presented under the title Dedications. The Suite nello Stile Italiano was written (in 1947) after the pianist Jakob Gimpel (1906-1989) – a Polish Jew who had emigrated to the USA the year before the composer did – asked Castelnuovo-Tedesco to write for him “a suite of ancient dances, but stylized in a modern way”. Naturally the suite is dedicated to Gimpel, who gave the premiere in Carnegie Hall in 1948. In his autobiography Castelnuovo-Tedesco explains the choice of Italian dances by saying “I didn’t want to write another Tombeau de Couperin!”. What he did write is demandingly virtuosic, though the ‘Preludio’ opens with a relatively pensive ricercare, serving to introduce a joyously brilliant mascherata (masked) which sends the hands racing up and down the keyboard, heady music for a heady dance of disguise and flirtation; the following movement (Gagliarda) has a slightly more straightforward sense of rhythm, but the score is full of timbral instructions to the performer, such as “quasi Tromboni”, “quasi corni” and “quasi Trombe”. Some emphatic chords evoke the hopping steps and leaps of the vigorous Renaissance dance. The third movement, a Siciliana, is predominantly charming and lyrical and, again, has a number of timbral markings, e.g. “quasi flauto” and “quasi oboe”. While I can’t swear that Angelo Arciglione captures every single one of these ‘colours’, his interpretation is certainly impressive. The closing Tarantella is dense with dazzling pianistic effects, trills, fanfares and a range of imitative colours. The whole is a pianistic feast; though I very much enjoyed Arciglione’s performance, there were just a few passages where I wondered whether his tempo wasn’t a little on the slow side (though it is only fair to say that the complexities of this score would be likely to make any pianist err on the side of slowness!). This is a fine and imaginative suite, which deserves to be much better known and to be played far more often. I hope some other pianists will take a look at it.
In the Six Pieces in form of Canons, written in late 1952, the composer wished to pay tribute to the musicologist and pianist Gerhard Albersheim (1902-1996), who is the dedicatee of the set of six pieces. However, the second and third pieces also carry an additional dedication to the Spanish pianist Amparo Iturbi (1898-1908), (who Granados thought to be the best interpreter of his music). The last three pieces also pay tribute, respectively, to Gabriel Fauré, Emanuel Chabrier and Alfredo Casella. These Six … Canons don’t grab the attention quite as forcefully as the Suite nello Stile Italiano does, though the first has the charm of a genuine lullaby and the second – ‘Little March’ - has an elegant playfulness, very grown-up music which also chimes with childhood emotions. The canon in homage to Fauré has a melancholy which is elegant through and through and that written in honour of Chabrier dances with both grace and energy. The closing Tarantella dedicated to Casella – to whom the young Castelnuovo Tedesco owed much – has plenty of appropriate fire. Arciglione’s performances of these canons seem to me exemplary.
The ‘Ricercare (sul nome di Luigi Dallapiccola)’ which closes the CD (this is the only substantial work on this disc which has previously been recorded; the only recording I have heard is by Mariaclara Monetti on an ASV CD (DCA1034) largely devoted to the solo piano music of Dallapiccola) is one in a series of 51 so-called Greetings Cards (Op.170), written between 1953 and 1967, in which Castelnuovo-Tedesco dedicated pieces to some of his friends, based on musical transliterations of their names; other recipients/dedicatees included André Previn, Heifetz, Walter Gieseking, Segovia, Siegfried Behrend, Piatigorsky, Isao Takahashi, Albert Schweitzer, Nicolas Slonimsky, Miklós Rósza and Laurindo Almeida. This tribute to an old Florentine friend – Castelnuovo-Tedesco and Dallapiccola corresponded regularly when the former was living in the USA – is a fine piece made up of a prelude, a fanfare and lengthy fugue. On the whole I prefer this performance to that by Monetti, though the choice is not an easy one. Monetti is perhaps more expressive, but Arciglione delineates the fugue more clearly.
The recording quality is fine throughout this very interesting CD, to which I shall certainly frequently return.
In recent years Castelnuovo-Tedesco has been relatively well-served by record companies – not least Naxos, who have issued several discs of his work.
one of these in 2011, Gary Higginson mused “I have often wondered why the music of the Florentine Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco has been so rarely heard at least in Britain”.
Why, indeed, isn’t the music of Castelnuovo-Tedesco better known and more popular? I can think of a few possible reasons. He was an immensely prolific composer and the sheer quantity of his work can be daunting. Some are always suspicious of a very prolific artist, suspecting that the work must therefore be over-facile. Such issues are compounded by the fact that his writing underwent several changes of idiom across his career, from the Debussy-influenced impressionism of his early pieces for piano, through the neo-classicism of some pieces from the early 1930s and the lush romanticism of some of his orchestral scores. All this means that it is hard to identify a distinctive and individual voice as one that is exclusively Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s. It may also be that some potential listeners are uneasy when faced with so many compositions which have declared ‘sources’ in earlier music, in pictures or literature. I well remember the occasion when, teaching at a summer school a few years ago, I was faced by someone who dismissed all works of art shaped by relationships with earlier works of art, regarding them as therefore excessively derivative and uninteresting. When I pointed out that such an assumption would mean regarding most of Shakespeare and most opera as second rate she tried (without convincing me) to argue that there were ‘special reasons’ for exempting figures like Shakespeare and Verdi, from such strictures. Anyone who comes to Castelnuovo-Tedesco from such an angle is not likely to find him a very attractive figure. On the other hand, anyone (like me) who is attracted by what has come to be called – not very elegantly – ‘intermediality’ may well be enthused by this rich and varied (if somewhat inconsistent) composer.