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Castelnuovo-Tedesco, Mario

(April 3, 1895 - March 17, 1968)

Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco was born in Florence into a family of Jewish origins on 3rd April 1895. His musical talent manifested itself right from childhood. Initially taught by his mother, at the age of 10 he wrote a nocturne and a berceuse that were published in a youth magazine. He studied piano at the Luigi Cherubini Conservatory in Florence under the guidance of Edgardo del Valle, obtaining his diploma in 1914. Later under Ildebrando Pizzetti he undertook studies in composition initially in Florence and then in Bologna, completing them in 1918.

His music soon came to the attention of Alfredo Casella, who included it in the repertory of the Società Nazionale di Musica (founded by Casella in 1917), thereby launching the young composer onto the European scene. In fact, a number of pieces by Castelnuovo-Tedesco were performed in 1922 at the first festival of the International Society for Contemporary Music in Salzburg.
In 1926 the composer’s opera La mandragola (by Machiavelli) was performed for the first time, ushering in an outstanding series of operas based on great literary classics. Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s favourite authors included Aeschylus, Virgil, Keats, Wordsworth, Whitman, Cervantes, García Lorca and Shakespeare.

Hebrew culture was also another source of great inspiration, of which perhaps the most remarkable fruit was his second concerto for violin, I Profeti, dedicated to Jascha Heifetz and premiered in New York by Arturo Toscanini in 1933. In 1932 Castelnuovo-Tedesco met Andrés Segovia in Venice. Their encounter gave birth to the composer’s first Concerto for guitar and orchestra, the first of more than a hundred or so compositions for this instrument, a corpus that has established Castelnuovo-Tedesco as one of the most important composers for guitar in the 20th century. Of particular importance both on the technical and creative plane are the 24 Caprichos de Goya, inspired by the etchings of the famous Spanish painter.

Mussolini’s proclamation in 1938 of the Italian race laws placed Castelnuovo-Tedesco in a condition of professional isolation and silence in that his music was banned from the radio and concert programmes. Constrained by these circumstances, the composer together with his family embarked from the port of Trieste on 13th July 1939 for New York, where he settled in 1940. Thanks to the help of Toscanini, Heifetz and Spalding, Castelnuovo-Tedesco was given a contract with the motion picture studio Metro Goldwin Mayer as a composer of film music, a position that assured him a secure income. Nevertheless, when the contract came to an end in 1943, he preferred not to renew it, in order to be able to work freely for a range of movie studios on a freelance basis.
In 1946 Castelnuovo-Tedesco was granted American citizenship. This induced him to write a public expression of thanks towards the country that had hosted him, even though the paradox of being a foreigner in Italy and an Italian in the United States never ceased to cause him a great deal of anguish.

In these same years the composer also began his teaching career working as a harmony and composition teacher in Los Angeles.
In 1958 his opera Il mercante di Venezia (on Shakespeare’s text) won first prize in the highly prestigious Campari competition conducted by the Teatro Alla Scala in Milan. Actually the opera was never performed in Milan. Its premiere took place in 1961 in Florence, where it enjoyed a huge success with the public though receiving a mixed reception from the critics.

He died in Los Angeles in California on 17th March 1968.

Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco

Photo: Archive Dallapiccola, Gabinetto Vieusseux, Florence