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8.554831 - Guitar Recital: Lorenzo Micheli
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Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco (1895-1968): Music for guitar

In the 1920s Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco emerged as one of Italy's most promising young composers. Hailed as a member of the Italian "Five" with the likes of Malipiero and Respighi, Castelnuovo-Tedesco's career flourished as his symphonic music, concertos, piano music, and song-cycles received critical acclaim as well as performances by Heifetz, Gieseking, Piatigorsky, and Toscanini. Castelnuovo-Tedesco was also a respected music critic, championing the music of Falla and Stravinsky, among others. A Sephardic Jew, he felt an affinity for Spanish music and frequently found inspiration in Spanish culture. In the 1930s he met Andrés Segovia and began composing for the guitar, but his career in Europe was drawing to a close. In 1938 Mussolini agreed to embrace Hitler's racial policies. Encouraged by Segovia and others, Castelnuovo-Tedesco decided to emigrate to the United States. His first guitar concerto, the Concerto in D, Op. 99, was written in 1939, during this period of dislocation, and the beautiful second movement was the composer's addio to his beloved Florence.

Armed with warm recommendations from Heifetz, Toscanini, and others, Castelnuovo-Tedesco found work in Hollywood. Film had only emerged from the silent era about a decade earlier, so composing for it was anew craft, similar in some respects to traditional genres such as incidental music and programme music, but burdened with complicated technical considerations and the requirement to collaborate, often without credit. Castelnuovo-Tedesco was uniquely suited to the profession because of the unusual speed and accuracy of his work, and because of his almost instinctive orchestration. He was involved in the scoring of about a hundred films between 1940 and his retirement in 1956, and the music cues from these films were used again by the studios in still another hundred or more films. Because of his success in film scoring, Castelnuovo-Tedesco also became a highly sought-after teacher whose pupils included Henry Mancini, Jerry Goldsmith, André Previn, and Nelson Riddle, but during this period and thereafter he never ceased to compose his own music, including a great deal of chamber music and many pieces for the guitar.

"Escarramán", A Suite of Spanish Dances from the XVIth Century (after Cervantes), Op. 177, is along neglected masterpiece in the guitar repertory. Like many of the composer's efforts, it contained passages in its unedited form (Castelnuovo-Tedesco was not a guitarist) which were literally impossible to perform. Escarramán was one of those colourful but disreputable characters to be found in Spanish literature in the Siglo de Oro, an underworld character who appeared in the jácaras of Francisco Gómez de Quevedo and others. The illustrious Cervantes, an admirer of Quevedo, also depicted this underworld on occasion, and several of his comic Entremeses inspired Castelnuovo-Tedesco's suite. Early in 1955 the composer wrote La guarda cuydadosa, based on Cervantes' shabby soldier who guards the street wherein resides a pretty scullery maid; the soldier chases off several potential suitors, but in the end his beloved chooses another with better financial prospects. Evidently pleased with this charming little burlesque, Castelnuovo-Tedesco added to it five more movements to create the suite. Based on several passages in El rufián viudo, the pieces are less dances than they are little narratives, with subtly shifting moods and recurring motifs, strongly suggesting the sound-track to a film that was playing in the composer's mind. The Gallarda begins in a dark minor key, quite unlike the Renaissance dance of the same name, and changes keys several times before ending on a triumphant major. El Canario is also far removed from its namesake, the dance from the Canary Islands with the insistent hemiola; Castelnuovo-Tedesco's is more like a Murciana, mixing in attractive falsetas. In El Villano (‘The Country Bumpkin’) a clumsy rustic dance almost evolves into a waltz. Pésame dello amor (I am sorry) is reminiscent of a Renaissance fantasy, beginning with a simple but touching theme and then creating a rich texture based primarily on imitation. El Rey Don Alonso el Bueno consists of tongue-in-cheek contrapuntal variations on a nursery theme, an effervescent march with bugle calls. La guarda cuydadosa (‘The soldier in love’) is another witty march, scherzando and frenetic; for the guitarist it is a picaresque adventure, with danger at every turn of phrase.

When Segovia gave the first performance of Castelnuovo-Tedesco's Sonata "Omaggio a Boccherini", Op. 77, in Geneva in 1934, a critic named Guilloux, writing of the event in the Journal de Genève, observed that the guitarist was such an artist that he could have made J'ai du bon tabac, a little French children's song, into a masterpiece. Castelnuovo-Tedesco, upon reading the review, obtained a copy of this tune and composed his Variations plaisantes sur un petit air populaire, Op. 95, which he dedicated to M. Guilloux. The composer sets the mood by providing Satie-esque instructions (the theme is "Grumpy and jerky", the first variation, "Fat and vain"). The third variation, entitled A l'espagnole (Hommage à Granados), is a clever paraphrase of Granados' Danza española No. 6, Jota (Rondalla aragonesa); the fourth variation, Intermède romantique, is a tremolo, and the piece concludes with L’inévitable Fugue.

Aranci in flore, Op. 87a, was written in 1936 for Aldo Bruzzichelli, a Florentine friend who played the guitar and who later became one of Castelnuovo-Tedesco ' s publishers. According to one anecdote, Bruzzichelli, who was the proprietor of a café in the Piazza Santa Maria Novella, had managed to locate a rare basket of oranges for Castelnuovo-Tedesco's son Lorenzo, who was ill. This act of kindness inspired both the father's gratitude and this lovely pastoral music, which evokes Sicilian orange-trees in blossom, and anticipates the Siciliana movement of the composer's later (1961) Sonatina canonica for two guitars.

The Tarantella, Op. 87b,written for Segovia in the same year, became the composer's best-known guitar solo and a standard element in the guitarist's repertory. Castelnuovo-Tedesco was exploring Italian traditions in those years, and so it was only appropriate that he explore the possibilities of this most popular of national dances; he wrote several other tarantellas in his career, notably the Tarantella scura from Piedigrotta 1924, Op. 32.

Variations à travers les siècles, Op. 71 (1932), was probably Castelnuovo-Tedesco's first work for guitar, written shortly after he met Segovia in Venice in 1932. Segovia had asked the composer to write guitar music for him, and sent him a copy of Sor's Mozart Variations, Op. 9, and Ponce's Variations on Las Folías as examples of well-written guitar music. Castelnuovo-­Tedesco chose for his theme a Chaconne in D minor, inspired perhaps by Segovia's famous transcription of Bach, on which he was working at the time. It was first performed in the 1933-34 concert season, followed by a Preludio (‘Variation I’), several waltzes, and a fox-trot on the same theme. The first two movements represent the Baroque period, the waltzes recall the Romantic era, and the Fox-trot evokes the contemporary period with its jazz rhythms, hence the title "à travers les siècles" (‘Through the centuries’). Castelnuovo-Tedesco also made use of the scordatura of the sixth string to D, a device he would employ frequently in his later writing for guitar. When Segovia received the manuscript of the Variations from the composer, he exclaimed that it was the first time he had ever encountered a [non-guitarist] musician who immediately understood how to write for the guitar.

The Tre preludi mediterranei, Op. 176 (1955) were composed in memory of a friend, Renato Bellenghi. The lovely Nenia, "sweet and languid" and in the key, unusual for the guitar, of E flat, is framed by two faster movements, Serenatella and Danza; as in the movements to Escarramán, the composer's melodic gifts seem boundless, and the music is restless and changeable like a film score.

"El sueño de la razon produce monstruos" ('The dream of reason produces monsters') is the eighteenth of Castelnuovo-Tedesco's 24 Caprichos de Goya, Op. 195 (1961). One of the most enigmatic of Goya's etchings, "El sueño" depicts an artist asleep at his desk while bizarre bird-like creatures multiply in the darkness. In his commentary, the artist explained that reason and imagination united were the source of all art and beauty, but imagination without reason produces pointless and impossible thoughts. Castelnuovo-Tedesco's solemn chaconne in D minor builds in intensity through five variations, but the tension is relieved in the coda and the spectres recede as the dream ends.

Richard Long


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