Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco was born in Florence to an Italian Sephardi Jewish family that had been in Tuscany for more than 400 years, his father’s forebears having resettled there as refugees following the Spanish Expulsion in 1492. As a child, he began piano lessons with his mother and was composing by the age of nine. Although there is no record of professional artistic tradition in the family, his maternal grandfather apparently harbored an almost secret interest in synagogue music. This was learned many years after his death, when Mario discovered a small notebook in which his grandfather had notated musically several Hebrew prayers. Mario later recalled that this incident made a profound impression on him: “one of the deepest emotions of my life … a precious heritage.” It inspired his first Jewish composition, his Hebrew rhapsody Danze del re David, for solo piano, as well as Prayers My Grandfather Wrote (1962).
Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s formal musical education began at the Institute Musicale Cherubini in Florence in 1909, leading to a degree in piano in 1914 and a composition diploma in 1918 from Liceo Musicale di Bologna. His growing European reputation was aided by performances of his music under the aegis of the International Society of Contemporary Music, formed after the First World War in part to reunite composers from previously belligerent nations.
Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s first large-scale work—a comic opera based on the Machiavelli play La Mandragoa—was awarded the Concorso Lirico Nazionale prize. Also active as a performer and critic, he accompanied such internationally famous artists as Lotte Lehman, Elisabeth Schumann, and Gregor Piatigorsky; played in the Italian premiere of Stravinsky’s Les Noces; gave solo piano recitals; and wrote for several Italian journals. A prominent European music historian has called Castelnuovo-Tedesco “the most talented exponent of the Italian avant-garde of the time [1920s].” Yet his music has been described as progressive, Postimpressionist, neo-Romantic, and/or neo-Classical. He is often associated most prominently with his works for classical guitar and his contributions to that repertoire, and it is probably upon that medium that his chief fame rests. His association with Andres Segovia resulted in his unintentionally neo-Classical Concerto in D for guitar (op. 99, 1939), and eventually in a catalogue of nearly 100 guitar works.
Castelnuovo-Tedesco wrote later in his career that he “never believed in modernism, nor in neo-Classicism, nor in any other ‘isms’”; that he found all means of expression valid and useful. He rejected the highly analytic and theoretical style that was in vogue among many 20th-century composers, and in general his musical approach was informed not by abstract concepts and procedures, but by extramusical ideas—literary or visual. He articulated three principal thematic inspirations at the core of his musical expression: 1) his Italian home region; 2) Shakespeare, with whose work he was fascinated from his youth; and 3) the Bible, not only the actual book and its narratives, but also the Jewish spiritual and liturgical heritage that had accumulated from and been inspired by it over the centuries. This natural gravitation toward biblical and Judaic subjects resulted in an oeuvre permeated by Jewish themes.
Though anti-Semitism sprouted more gradually in Italy than in other parts of Europe prior to the Rome-Berlin Axis Pact of 1937, by about 1933, ten years after the Italian Fascists had come to power, a specific Fascist attitude vis-à-vis the arts, later known as the Mystic of Fascism, had been formulated. This involved the controlled use of art as a propaganda tool. By 1938 Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s music was eliminated from radio, and performances were canceled—all prior to the announcement of the official anti-Semitic laws. When the 1938 Manifesto of Race was issued by the Mussolini government, the composer determined to leave Italy. In 1939, just before the German invasion of Poland and the commencement of the war, he and his family left for America. In 1940 Jascha Heifetz organized a contract between Castelnuovo-Tedesco and the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) film studio, launching his fifteen-year career as a major film composer. Between then and 1956 he was also associated with Columbia, Universal, Warner Bros., Twentieth Century Fox, and CBS, working on scores as composer, assistant, or collaborator for some 200 films. In addition, his influence as a teacher of many other “Hollywood” composers was significant—among them such people as Henry Mancini, Jerry Goldsmith, Nelson Riddle, John Williams, and André Previn.
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A host of refugee composers from Germany, Austria, and other Nazi-affected lands had settled in Los Angeles during the 1930s, and many took advantage of the opportunity to devote their talents at least in part to film. The list includes such “originally classical” composers as Korngold, Goldmark, Steiner, Toch, and Milhaud. Although Castelnuovo-Tedesco later sought to shrug off his Hollywood experience as artistically insignificant, critical assessments point to the film industry as having both defined his American career and affected his musical style in general. In fact, he saw film originally as an opportunity for genuine artistic creativity—an alternative medium to opera (which he viewed as inherently European) for the development of a manifestly American form of expression.
Historian James Westby, an authority on Castelnuovo-Tedesco, aptly sums up the composer’s American experience and its relation to his Jewish sensitivity, quoting from his memoirs:
For Castelnuovo-Tedesco, composition in America became “an act of faith,” an act born out of “the faith I inherited from my father, from my mother, from my grandfather, and which is so well expressed in the words of the Psalm which my grandfather used to sing [part of the grace after meals]: ‘I have been young and now I am old, yet I have not seen the just abandoned.’"