Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco

1895 1968

Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco

Composer • Piano


Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco was an Italian composer who emigrated to the US in the 20th century. He composed for many films and theatrical works, which were greatly appreciated during his lifetime.

Castelnuovo-Tedesco was born in 1895 in Florence, where he received his formal music education at the Istituto Musicale Cherubini beginning in 1909. In 1913 he earned alicenza liceale and a year later a degree in piano. He later attended the Liceo Musicale of Bologna, where he studied composition and earned his degree in 1918. Castelnuovo-Tedescos studied with Pizzetti, who was one of the greatest influences on his early musical development.

Pizzetti brought Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s music to the attention of Casella, who became an avid supporter and crucial patron in his early career. In 1917, Castelnuovo-Tedesco joined the new group, Società Italiana di Musica (later known as the Società Nazionale di Musica Moderna) along with Pizzetti, Malipero, Respighi, Gui, Perinello, and Tommasini.

Castelnuovo-Tedesco enjoyed much success in his early career. His reputation as a composer grew tremendously after the Italian branch of the ISCM began regularly presenting concerts with his music. After Malipiero, Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s work was the most widely presented by the Italian ISCM.

In addition to composing, Castelnuovo-Tedesco was an accomplished soloist, accompanist, and ensemble musician. He was also known as a music critic and writer of essays; his criticism is most notably present inLa critica musicale  (1920–23), Il pianoforte (1922–5) (later changed to Revista musicale italiana ), and La rassegna musicale (1928–36). As a writer, he was described as having “a quick-witted common sense and a good-natured skepticism for the new.” This was an “attitude that came from his inborn aversion to any art that is characteristically fanatic.”

A vivid example of early Italian influence is found in Concerto italiano in G minor (1924) for violin and orchestra, which blends the style of Vivaldi with Italian folksongs from the 16th and 17th centuries.

Guitar music is prominent in Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s output, comprising nearly 100 works. His finest guitar work, Guitar Concerto no. 1 in D (1939) is also perhaps his finest neo-classical work. The piece is written in a style reminiscent of Mozart, and was immediately successful. This concerto convinced other composers to compose for the guitar with orchestra.

All of Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s initial theatrical works contain Italian subjects. Some of his theatrical compositions include the operaLa mandragola (1925) and the balletBacco in Toscana (1931). He also wrote the incidental music toSavonarola (1935). The greatest theatrical music written by Castelnuovo-Tedesco is inspired by Shakespeare, on which he composed two operas and 11 overtures, along with many songs.

Castelnuovo-Tedesco became increasingly concerned with Italian Jewry during the 1930s. He was proud of his ancestry, and, as a Jew himself, he was concerned with the political situation. He commented in 1940, “I felt proud of belonging to a race so unjustly persecuted; I wanted to express this pride in some large work, glorifying the splendor of the past days and the burning inspiration which inflamed the envoys of God, the prophets.” His outspoken views and heritage led to the banishment of his music during the great purge; performances were cancelled along with radio broadcasts. Feeling unsafe and undervalued in Italy, he left for New York with his family in 1939. Just a short time later, they moved to California.

Castelnuovo-Tedesco became involved in film music, as did many other composers who moved to southern California. In 1940, he signed a contract with the Metro-Goldwyn-Meyer company and worked with major movie studios such as Columbia, Universal, Warner Brothers, and 20th Century Fox. During this time he worked on more than 250 film scores, most of which he received no credit for, as he often co-wrote or provided only the source music. He provided the ballet music forDown to Earth (1947) and the operatic music in both Everybody Does It (1949) andStrictly Dishonorable (1951). Castelnuovo-Tedesco also wrote the complete score toAnd Then There Were None (1945). Since he was often not credited for his work, Castelnuovo-Tedesco often referred to himself as a ‘ghost-writer’.

While living in California and working in the film music industry, Castelnuovo-Tedesco also composed more than 70 concert works, which included chamber music, songs, and opera. His early compositions were largely influenced by Pizzetti, Debussy, and Ravel. From Debussy he inherited a feel for Impressionism, and from Ravel a sense of neo-classicism which relied on traditional forms; his interest in early Italian music is also evident. Though his music can be broken down and categorized into these styles, Castelnuovo-Tedesco “never believed in modernism or in neo-classicism, or in any other isms.” He believed instead that music was simply a means of expression. Common characteristics in his music include Italy (mostly Florence and Tuscany), the Bible, and Shakespeare. He also enjoyed experimenting with unconventional harmonies including the use of parallel chords and polytonal blocks set alongside a flowing counterpoint and imagery.

An example of his use of imagery can be found in Il raggio verde (1916), a composition which represents the setting of the sun over the sea and the final ray of light the sun gives out before disappearing over the horizon. Another piece,Tre fioretti di Santo Francesco (1919), aims to interpret the paintings of Giotto.

Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s style became increasingly neo-Romantic and programmatic, moving away from his earlier neo-classicism. For instance, his String Quartet no. 3 (1954) tells a specific story. Written with a narrative structure, the piece recalls, through various movements, his friend Bernard Berenson’s villa near Settignano; each movement depicts a different scene. The first movement paints a musical picture of the hills above Florence while the second movement portrays a medieval alley. The third movement represents the train that used to run from Florence to Vallombroso before World War I. A conversation between Castelnuovo-Tedesco and Berensen is recreated in the last movement.

Castelnuovo-Tedesco taught film music composition at the Los Angeles Conservatory of Music  of sought after teachers of film music. His students included famous composers such as Goldsmith, Mancini, Previn, Riddle, and John Williams.

The biggest highlight of Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s career was his first prize from La Scala’s Concorso Internazionale Campari forThe Merchant of Venice in 1958. The work was premiered in 1961.

After moving to the US, Castelnuovo-Tedesco became a US citizen in 1946. He lived in Los Angeles until his death in 1968.

Header image courtesy of Liapardi Press Other image courtesy of Fan People