Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco (Florence, 3 April 1895 – Beverly Hills, 16 March 1968) was born into a Jewish family of Sephardic descent (Jews expelled from Spain in 1492). He was extraordinarily creative, to his credit he worked on all sorts of things: piano works, concertos, operas…. His compositions were played by the great: Walter Gieseking, Gregor Piatigorsky, Jascha Heifetz, Casella.
Heifetz plays Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s second violin concerto: ‘I Propheti’. Recording from 1954:
Today, we know him mainly for his guitar works, nearly a hundred in all, mostly written for Andres Segovia.
Segovia plays the Guitar Concerto No.1 in D major, Op. 99; live recording from 1939:
In the beginning of the 1930s the composer began to explore his “Jewish Roots”, which was intensified by the rising of fascism and the racial laws. His music was not performed anymore. Helped by Arturo Toscanini, Castelnuovo-Tedesco and his family were able to leave Italy just before the beginning of World War 2.
Like most Jewish composers who fled Europe, Castelnuovo-Tedesco ended up in Hollywood. Where, thanks to Jascha Heifetz, he was appointed composer of film music by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.
At Rita Hayworth’s special request, he composed music for the film The Loves of Carmen starring Hayworth and Glenn Ford. Below is the dance scene from the film:
During this time, Castelnuovo-Tedesco also composed new operas and vocal works inspired by American poetry, Jewish liturgy and the Bible: America offered him opportunities to deepen and develop his Italian musical heritage and his Jewish spirituality. He dreamed of hearing his Sacred Service “once in the synagogues of Florence”. It was premiered in 1950, at New York’s Park Avenue Synagogue.
Dating from 1956, the opera Il Mercante di Venezia after Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice (Castelnuovo-Tedesco was a great Shakespeare lover) was performed at Maggio Musicale in Florence in 1961. Toscanini conducted and the leading roles were sung by Renato Capecchi (Shylock) and Rosanna Carteri (Portia).
In 1966, he composed The Divan of Moses Ibn Ezra. It is a setting of nineteen poems by Rabbi Moses ben Jacob ibn Ezra, also known as Ha-Sallaá¸ (‘writer of penitential prayers’).
An illustration of Ibn Ezra (centre) using an astrolabe
Born in Granada around 1055 – 1060, Ibn Ezra died after 1138 and is considered one of Spain’s greatest poets. He also had a huge influence on Arabic literature. Castelnuovo-Tedesco composed the ‘Divan’ (meaning; a collection of poems) to the modern English translation.
Roberta Alexander sings The Divan of Moses Ibn Ezra
Channa Malkin and Izhar Elias in ‘Fate has blocked the way’:
The composer wrote his Cello Concerto for Gregor Piatigorsky, the premiere took place in 1935, with Arturo Toscanini conducting the New York Philharmonic. And that was it. Since then, the concerto was totally forgotten for all of eighty years. Until Raphael Wallfisch took it on.
Raphael Wallfisch plays the Allegro Moderato from Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s Cello Concerto
After World War II, Castelnuovo-Tedesco, like several Jewish composers who were forced to flee and seek refuge in Hollywood, was accused of conservatism and sentimentality. That he was inspired by Spanish folklore in many of his works, was not appreciated either.
Song of Songs
In 2022, in celebration of Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s birthday on 3 April his official website presented a long-buried treasure: a recording of the world-premiere of The Song of Songs, which took place in Los Angeles on 7 August 1963
“In my life I have written many melodies for voice and published 150 of them (many others remaining unpublished) on texts in all the languages I know: Italian, French, English, German, Spanish and Latin. My ambition and, indeed, my deep motivation has always been to unite my music with poetic texts that stimulated my interests and feelings, to express its lyricism.”
In 2019, his biography was filmed in the movie Maestro. Below is the trailer:
Official website of Mario Castelnuovo -Tedesco: