Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco: Op. 143 for Guitar and String Quartet

The name Castelnuovo-Tedesco stands out. Translating it to English, as ’Newcastle-German’, doesn’t clarify it much, and certainly doesn’t explain why it’s in Italian, or why it’s so long. The only certainty is that it seems to be European.  Add to that the guitar-oriented nature of Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s concert music, and he seems perhaps to have been Spanish.

Beginning at the end: Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco made his later career in Hollywood, California. He has four full movie scores to his credit: And Then There Were None (1945), Time Out of Mind (1947), The Loves of Carmen (Rita Hayworth – 1948), and The Brave Bulls (1951). In addition to these scores, he wrote uncredited incidental music for a long and dramatic list of productions, including such films as: Gaslight (Ingrid Bergman – 1944); Hellcats of the Navy (Ronald Reagan, Nancy Reagan – 1957); and Captain Video, Master of the Stratosphere (1951). That alone is a substantial (and politically resonant) contribution; he was also a teacher and mentor to Henry Mancini, Jerry Goldsmith, Nelson Riddle, John Williams, and André Previn.

Before his venture to Hollywood, Castelnuovo-Tedesco had written concert music for many of the great virtuosi of the twentieth century.  His most fruitful collaboration was with Andres Segovia, for whom he wrote a guitar concerto in 1939 and to whom he dedicated numerous important guitar works. He had written a violin concerto for Jascha Heifetz in 1932, and a cello concerto for Gregor Piatigorsky in 1935.  It is hard to imagine a better path for a composer to have before him, but times did change. 

Castelnuovo-Tedesco was from a Sephardic family which (all sources seem to agree) had been in Tuscany since 1492, when they had been expelled from Spain. The tradition of the family had been one of banking until 1) Mario decided to be a composer and 2) a rising tide of anti-semitism made it clear to them that they must leave Italy, after almost 450 years. Castelnuovo-Tedesco appealed to friends in America, notably Arturo Toscanini and Jascha Heifetz, to help him with emigration. It was Heifetz, apparently, who connected him with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer for the purpose gainful employment in music.

Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco grew up in modernist times, and was well aware of modernist developments, but  he steered clear of its stiffer winds. His music, however chromatic or technical, is more traditional and tuneful than that of most of his contemporaries. It makes sense to think of him as a Los Angeles contemporary of Rachmaninoff: appealing, intelligent, and never shy to employ, or enjoy, the simple-complex mysteries of melody, song, and tradition.

Commissioned by the Portland Chamber Music Festival