Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco was a prolific Italian composer of Jewish origin who was forced to emigrate to the United States in 1937 in the face of rising antisemitism in Europe.  His dual accomplishments were composing “Jewish music” in keeping with nearly lost Italian-Jewish tradition and a catalogue of classical guitar pieces, mostly written for the famed Spanish guitarist Andres Segovia.

Castelnuovo-Tedesco was born in 1895 in Florence, Italy, the son of a prominent banking family and, on his mother’s side, a cultivated, artistic family.  His mother gave him piano lessons in secret as a young boy. Only after he performed two Chopin pieces and one of his own compositions in a surprise family performance did his father’s resistance to having a musician in the family diminish.  Castelnuovo-Tedesco went on to study piano and composition at the Cherubini Royal Conservatory in Florence before becoming a well-known performer and composer.  His main influences were his composition teacher, Ildebrando Pizzetti and the composer Ernest Bloch.

In 1925, going through the belongings of deceased maternal family members, Castelnuovo-Tedesco happened upon a composition notebook that had belonged to his grandfather containing some Hebrew prayers set to music.  No one in the family had known that his grandfather could compose. Castelnuovo-Tedesco wrote, in 1940:

I found there the source of my whole life, both in music and in faith; it was the revelation, the symbol perhaps of my destiny… And so I decided to compose my first Jewish work, which I dedicated to his memory and composed for the piano -- the instrument which he wished me to play.  I asked my mother to sing for me again the old, beloved melodies which I had heard him sing in my youth, and on these themes, through “the oral tradition” (as in the old times) I constructed my Hebrew rhapsody, “Le Danse del Re David” (The Dances of King David) a series of seven unrelated episodes.” (The American Jewish Outlook, June 21, 1940, p. 4)

Throughout the late 1920s and early 1930s, Castelnuovo-Tedesco continued to compose works inspired by Jewish themes including, most famously, his second violin concerto, “The Prophets”, at the request of Russian-Jewish violinist Jascha Heifetz.   At this time, central Europe was witnessing the intensification of the antisemitic movement and Castelnuovo-Tedesco wanted to express pride in belonging to this persecuted group. The concerto had its world premiere on 13 April 1933 in Carnegie Hall with the New York Philharmonic-Symphony Orchestra with Heifetz as soloist and Arturo Toscanini conducting to a good critical reception.

Even before the promulgation of Mussolini’s racial laws in Italy, Castelnuovo-Tedesdco’s works were unofficially banned.  A planned radio performance of his second violin concerto was suddenly and mysteriously cancelled in 1938, months before the antisemitic Italian Racial Laws went into effect.  As life in Italy grew more uncomfortable for the Jewish composer, he began looking for a way to emigrate with his family.  He was sponsored by Heifetz, by then an American citizen, with help from Toscanini.

Upon arrival in the United States, housing was found for the Castelnuovo-Tedesco family in Larchmont, NY, an idyllic Westchester suburb of New York City.  From there, the composer was employed by the New York Philharmonic as a piano soloist, including for the world premiere of his own second piano concerto in 1940.

After two years in New York, Castelnuovo-Tedesco signed a contract with Metro Goldwyn Mayer (MGM) and the family moved to Beverly Hills.  He composed music for many films including pieces for Billy the Kid (1941), Gaslight (1944), The Yearling (1946) and many other popular films. 

He did not neglect his Jewish roots during the war.  During this time, he also composed sacred works including his “Sacred Service for the Sabbath Eve,” (composed 1943; addenda 1950) which was performed publicly for the first time on 12 May 1950 at the Park Avenue synagogue in New York in its eighth annual liturgical service by contemporary composers. He also composed many more minor songs for Jewish services.

Castelnuovo-Tedesco was a prolific composer of both classical and film music, traditional and more experimental styles, Shakespeare and Biblical themes.  He produced numerous pieces for guitar, many oratorios and even several operas and ballets, running the gamut from critically acclaimed to mostly forgotten.   He had some trouble finding performance opportunities for his scores in later years, famously premiering his oratorio “Song of Songs” with the students of Hollywood High School in 1963.  He reportedly found the amateur performance delightful, saying “I am not a snob!”

Castelnuovo-Tedesco composed to the very end of his life.  At the time of his passing, on 16 March 1968, he was in the process of producing a set of Variations for Classical Guitar for Andres Segovia.

By Susan Wachowski

Sources

Rossi, Nick. Catalogue of Works by Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco. New York: International Castelnuovo-Tedesco Society, 1977.

Westby, James. 2001 "Castelnuovo-Tedesco, Mario." Grove Music Online. 16 Oct. 2018. .

‘Jewish Background of an Exiled Musician’, American Jewish Outlook (26 July 1940), p. 4.

‘Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, 72, Opera Composer, Dies on Coast’ The New York Times  (March 19, 1968) p. 44.

‘25 SOLOISTS SIGNED FOR PHILHARMONIC’, The New York Times (April 10, 1939) p.18.