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8.555856 - CASTELNUOVO-TEDESCO, M.: Piano Music (Maso) - Cipressi / Il raggio verde / Epigrafe / Cantico
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Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco (1895-1968)

Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco (1895-1968)

Piano Music


The Italian composer, critic and pianist Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco derived his family name from the Spanish district of Castilla Nueva, from which his ancestors had been expelled in 1492, with the scattering of Sephardim throughout the Mediterranean world. Born in Florence in 1895, he was introduced to music by his mother and in 1908 entered the Cherubini Conservatory in Florence. He completed his piano studies with Del Valle de Paz in 1914, and had become a composition pupil of Ildebrando Pizzetti two years earlier, graduating in 1918. He then studied privately for the diploma in composition at Bologna Conservatory. He owed much to Pizzetti, who was instrumental in introducing him to leading contemporary composers, including Alfredo Casella, who included Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s 1916 Il raggio verde in his piano recitals.


In the period between the wars Castelnuovo-Tedesco established himself as a pianist, appearing as a soloist, accompanist and participant in chamber music, and as a critic for various musical journals. In 1920 he won the prize offered by Il pianoforte for the best piano composition with his Cantico, Op.19. His compositions were also heard abroad, notably at the festivals of the ISCM. After the racial legislation of 1938 and with the support of Heifetz, Toscanini and Albert Spalding, and with the assurance of employment, he moved to America. From 1940 to 1956 he worked for various film studios in Hollywood, contributing to some 250 productions. At the same time he continued his own work as a composer, with a series of some seventy works of all kinds, including oratorios and cantatas, songs, operas, concertos, guitar music and compositions for the piano. His 1959 opera Il mercante di Venezia (The Merchant of Venice) won the La Scala Concorso internazionale Campari prize and was given its first performance in Florence in 1961 at the Maggio musicale. His interest in Shakespeare is further suggested by his series of Shakespeare overtures, his Shakespeare songs (Marco Polo 8.223729), and his opera All’s well that ends well. Other works show his wide literary interests, from an opera based on Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest to the ballet The Birthday of the Infanta, music for Pirandello’s I giganti della montagna and settings of Schiller, Keats, Wordsworth, Shelley, Heine and Petrarch. In 1946 he had become an American citizen and until his death in 1968 he taught at the then Los Angeles Conservatory, where his pupils included Henry Mancini, Jerry Goldsmith, John T. Williams and André Previn.


Cipressi, Op.17, later transcribed by the composer for orchestra, is an evocative piece, suggested by the cypress trees at Usigliano, where he spent many summers, staying at the Villa Forti. In 1924 he married Clara Forti, but the Forti family properties did not survive the depredations after 1938. Il raggio verde, Op.9, written in 1916, suggests the influence of Debussy 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 works form a trilogy of sea-pieces. Lucertolina, written in 1916, evokes the creature of the title, the little lizard, later included in a Sonata zoologica.


La sirenetta e il pesce turchino, Op.18, the sea fable of the little mermaid, was the basis of a later ballet in 1937. Once again Castelnuovo-Tedesco depicts the sea, here in the terms of a fairy-story, in which the mermaid encounters the growing amatory difficulties usual to her kind, before the serene conclusion. To this the five little waltzes of Passatempi, Op.54, offer a light-hearted contrast, the first an off-key Un poco mosso, leading to a second in burlesque mood. The third waltz is imbued with melancholy and the fourth is pastoral in feeling. The dances end with a mock-Viennese waltz.


Vitalba e Biancospino, Op.21, of 1921 takes its starting-point from the story of the two plants of the title, specifically the clematis and the common hawthorn, as so often suggesting the composer’s facility 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 the prize-winning Cantico, Op.19, of 1920, a piece written Per una statuetta di S.Bernadino di Niccolò dell’Arca (For a statuette of St Bernardino by Niccolò dell’Arca), music that rises to a final dynamic climax in its reflection of the work of the fifteenth century artist.


Keith Anderson


(For much of the biographical information on Castelnuovo-Tedesco I am indebted to the article by Mila De Santis in Musik in Geschichte und Gegenwart, Personenteil Bd.IV, Bärenreiter, 2000.)

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