Most music connoisseurs know him for his guitar music. His compositions became famous through Andre Segovia, who performed them around the world. Movie buffs know him for his work on some 250 film scores. But outside a relatively small circle of specialists and aficionados, the name Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco sticks in the mind about as easily as it rolls off the (non–Italian-speaking) tongue.
That this is the case speaks to the uneven hand of history and the necessities of survival rather than to his talents or abilities. As a Jew in Italy under Mussolini’s fascist regime, Mario traded his country and a highly successful career for the safety and security of America. In America, he found success as a film composer and teacher (his students included John Williams, Andre Previn, and Jerry Goldsmith, among others), but he never achieved the level of fame he had in Italy.
Though long overdue, this injustice will be acknowledged on International Holocaust Remembrance Day by the Italian Consulate General of Los Angeles, when members of the Castelnuovo-Tedesco family will accept the Mi Ricordo or “I Remember” award in memoriam on his behalf.
“[The award] is something that this Consulate General started about four years ago,” said Enrica Dente degli Scrovegni, speaking by phone from the Consulate’s office. It grew out of Italy’s official recognition of January 27th as a national day of Holocaust commemoration, passed by law in 2000. (UN Resolution A/RES/60/7, designating January 27th International Holocaust Remembrance Day, was passed in 2005.) Each year, the Consulate holds a ceremony in which they read the names of the some 8,000 Jews who were deported from Italy during the Second World War. The ceremony concludes with the bestowal of the Mi Ricordo award, an award that acknowledges an Italian Holocaust survivor who persevered against all odds.
The idea of honoring Castelnuovo-Tedesco with the award came from someone for whom he has served as a great influence, according to Ms. Dente. Fabrizio Mancinelli is an Italian-born composer living in Los Angeles who counts Disney and Lionsgate among his clients. That he should find inspiration in the work of Castelnuovo-Tedesco makes sense. Mancinelli’s biography lists opera and film music as his first loves. Castelnuovo-Tedesco wrote several operas, including one on Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice that won first prize in the Concorso Internazionale Campari in 1958 and was premiered in his hometown of Florence in 1961.
Mario’s granddaughter, Diana Castelnuovo-Tedesco, is one of the people who will be accepting the award on Mario’s behalf. Though Mario died when Diana was just seven years old, she has vivid memories of him. Additionally, she got to know him vicariously through her grandmother (who outlived him by 25 years), and through many of his musical colleagues that remained close with the family even after his passing. (Hear Diana’s recollections and insights on Mario’s life and legacy in this podcast.)
Diana is also heavily involved in Mario’s legacy, assisting with the management of his archives at the Library of Congress and working with publishers to make some of his music more easily accessible to a growing base of performers who’ve taken interest in it.
“It’s just good quality music,” Ms. Castelnuovo-Tedesco says. Which is true, but here again, in his own time history was working against him. In a world drunk on Schoenberg and Stravinsky, Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s approach to concert music was simply too 19th-century. Beyond his guitar music, much of his work for the concert hall received scant attention during his life. His New York Times obituary notes that one of his choral compositions was premiered at Hollywood High School by its student chorus.
The Milken Archive has recorded a number of Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s Judaically-themed or -inspired works, including a complete sacred service, a memorial service, a cantata, and a set of variations for organ on themes penned by his grandfather. His second violin concerto, “The Prophets,” commissioned by the great Jascha Heifetz, was added to the Milken Archive earlier this year. Aside from this latter piece, much of this music was little known to the general public prior to the Milken Archive recordings.
One hopes that the bestowal of the Mi Ricordo award from the Italian Consulate General will serve as more than another accolade for the composer, but that it will also help fuel the resurgence of interest in his music among musicians, who in turn will bring it to audiences willing to accept it on its own terms.
“In earlier periods, there was a lot less open-mindedness about different styles,” Ms. Castelnuovo-Tedesco observed. “Today, people seem more willing to consider music for its own merits.”