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Graeme Skinner
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POSTED 9 JANUARY 2015

Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco (1895-1968)

Concerto No 1 in D, Op. 99 for guitar and orchestra
(Composed: Italy, Summer 1939)

In 3 movements:
1 Allegretto (with cadenza by the composer)
2 Andantino alla romanza
3 Ritmico e cavalleresco (with cadenza by the composer)

Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco

CONCERT PROGRAM NOTE Queensland Symphony Orchestra, Karin Schaupp (guitar), 2008

Critical evaluations of the life and work of the Italian composer Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco tend to be generous but lukewarm. On his death in 1968, an English obituarist J. C. G. Waterhouse (an Oxford student friend of our Peter Sculthorpe in the late 1950s) noted his “slender but genuine” talent, attributing his fame outside Italy to the music he composed for the guitar Spanish virtuoso Andrés Segovia, and to his later work in Hollywood “in a field for which his talents eminently suited him: film music” (Waterhouse was, himself, son of the English film actor Elspeth Duxbury, of Make Mine Mink and St Trinians fame).

Castelnuovo-Tedesco taught composition and orchestration to André Previn, Henry Mancini, Jerry Goldsmith, and John Williams (the composer, not the guitarist), but so far few historians of serious twentieth-century music have spared him more than a footnote, describing his music as “pleasant”, “tuneful”, “innocuous”, and the composer himself as an amiable conservative, a musical flâneur caught in the wake of the modernist mainstream (Stravinsky, Bartók, Schoenberg). Yet listeners today will immediately hear in his work that distinctive “sound” - a nostalgic tunefulness tinged, fatefully perhaps, with harmonic astringency - characteristic of so much European music of the interwar decades, the 1920s and 1930s, from Berg's Violin Concerto to Rodrigo's Concierto de Aranjuez.

Probably the single most famous of his works, the First Guitar Concerto was a product of the maelstrom of 1939, a year that was also the turning point of Castelnuovo-Tedesco's own life, and was premiered by its dedicatee, Segovia, on 28 November that year on tour in Montevideo, Uruguay. According to Waterhouse, the concerto shows its composer “receptive” to the neo-classical ideals then fashionable in music, but, clearly implying that he was no Stravinsky, only at “a light weight level”.

Twenty years earlier, however, Castelnuovo-Tedesco was considered to be one of the more interesting musical youngsters of the “New Italy” movement. Born in Florence, Jewish, talented, a student of the leading modernist Ildebrando Pizzetti, a protege of pianist Alfredo Casella, and composer already of an opera on Machiavelli's comedy La mandragola (The Mandrake Root), produced at Venice’s La Fenice in 1926, in 1935 Castelnuovo-Tedesco was commissioned to compose incidental music for an outdoor spectacle about that other notorious Florentine, Savonarola. Though this event was mounted with the express approval of Mussolini himself, that same year Castelnuovo-Tedesco found himself, along with his mentor Casella, among the Italians on the NAZI's Goebbels international blacklist of 108 Jewish or otherwise unacceptable musicians. There he was in august company, including composers Aaron Copland, Alban Berg, Ernest Bloch, the late Eric Satie, and even one Australian, the expat Arthur Benjamin (the composer of Jamaican Rumba compounded his Jewish ancestry with an “unhealthy” interest in Negro music).

By 1938, as he wryly noted, performances of his works were being “mysteriously cancelled”. Finally in autumn 1939, having just completed the First Guitar Concerto, he bowed to the inevitable and sailed for the United States as a refugee. According to Segovia, the concerto’s tranquil middle movement, a product of the composer's last summer in Italy, was his “farewell to the Tuscan countryside”. On a postwar return visit to Italy in 1948, the composer found Tuscany “as beautiful as ever”, but, as he wrote then to his old teacher, Pizzeti, he felt ill-at-ease in the cities “even in Florence ... for me, perhaps, it is a paradise lost.”

An early sign of Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s interest in Spanish music was his 1915 song-cycle Coplas. However, when he met Segovia at a festival of contemporary music in Venice in 1932 and promised to write him something for guitar, it was perhaps inevitable that Spain, and the composer’s own Sephardic family roots, would again leave an impression. As an example of good writing for the guitar, Segovia sent him a copy of Fernando Sor’s Variations on a Theme of Mozart, which perhaps partly accounts for the neo-classical idiom of the First Guitar Concerto. The opening themes of its outer movements also recall the baroque pithiness and contrapuntal utility of Scarlatti’s tunes (another Italian-Spanish crossover), and the concerto overall is scored for a “classical” combination of strings and a small wind band.

Nevertheless, it remains very much music of its own troubled time and place, especially in the wistful slow movement, and in the equestrian finale’s slower central episode, cast in a solemn four beats per bar in contrast to its rest of the movement’s jaunty three, and whose music Castelnuovo-Tedesco brings back one last time at the very end, but now marking it to be played “like a fanfare”.

© Graeme Skinner 2008/2015         



© Graeme Skinner 2015