The Relevance of Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco (1895-1968)

Author Graham Wade

IN THE CENTENARY YEAR of the birth of Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, it is appropriate to refresh our memory concerning his most significant achievements and to evaluate our own relationship with the music. With the work of Castelnuovo-Tedesco we rediscover a new sense of the guitar’s lyricism and return to the Italian impressionistic post-romanticism of the first half of this century, so closely aligned with similar concepts in Spanish culture. In terms of guitar history, he stands at a crucial point, providing substantial pieces for recitals at a time when there was all too little and, through the advocacy of Andrés Segovia, entering the legendary brotherhood of those who enriched the guitar’s twentieth-century repertoire. Without a knowledge of this composer’s contribution, our awareness of the evolution of the guitar over this century would remain rudimentary.

For many guitar teachers the music of Castelnuovo-Tedesco may seem somewhat irrelevant to the daily grind of improving the standard of pupils. He was not essentially a pedagogic type of composer in the manner of Leo Brouwer or even Heitor Villa- Lobos, providing studies for fingers of varying capabilities. The closest he came to this was in one of his last endeavours for guitar, Appunti, preludi e studi per chitarra, op. 210. Ruggero Chiesa puts the following Preface to his edition:

When I invited Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco to compose some pieces for the guitar in the spring of 1967, he adhered to the proposal with great enthusiasm. They were to be of middling technical difficulty and to be aimed mainly at young performers. The idea gave him the opportunity to realise a plan he had had in his mind for some time and he at once started to compose Appunti, an opus divided into four parts or books, each of which contained and developed a specific musical and technical criterion: Book 1, ‘Intervals’, Book 2, ‘Rhythm’, Book 3, ‘Figurations’, Book 4, ‘Six Studies in Serial Composition’.

Unfortunately, owing to the untimely death of the author, this important work in the realm of guitar music was not concluded, only the first two books being finished, plus two pieces of the third and sketches for three serial studies.[1]

Castelnuovo-Tedesco collaborated with Chiesa on the first book in terms of ‘fingering and revision only’, but observations ‘on the other material came too late’:

These were fairly numerous and would have included entailed some modifications in order to align the pieces more to the technical possibilities of the instrument.

Ronald Purcell, pupil of the master, informed me that some corrections were carried out, but these were only of a slight order. In view of this I have come to the conclusion that the best thing to do would be to add the fingering to the pieces that did not require major alterations, leaving the responsibility of the changes in the other pieces to the performers. This seems the only way of not betraying the original intentions of the composer to whom guitarists owe so much of their basic literature.[2]

The Foreword of Angelo Gilardino’s edition of Platero y yo, op. 190, for narrator and guitar, contains a similar message:

Any guitarist wishing to perform these compositions will then have of necessity to bring about appropriate changes to some details, so as to make these scores technically fit for performance: this trouble will be rewarded by the unique certainty of having been able to draw from the original text which, in order to be understood, requires a careful evaluation of the adherence and identification relationship between the musical and the literary texts.[3]

Such an exercise should not be too much to ask of performers, though teachers may feel less willing to prepare their own editions from the composer’s incomplete manuscripts. Students, with various pressures on them already, may also be averse to this kind of task, possibly preferring the joys of creating their own transcriptions from Albéniz or Granados to the delicate choices of tinkering with a composer’s text. (In the event, for whatever reason, apart from Segovia’s recordings and concert performances of ten of the pieces from Platero y yo, very few guitarists play this work, apparently preferring the well edited eight piece Suite of Eduardo Sainz de la Maza’s Platero y yo.[4])

An interesting example of editorial expertise is Gilardino’s edition of 24 Caprichos de Goya, op. 195, recently recorded by Lily Afshar (on Summit DCD 167, released 1994). Castelnuovo-Tedesco died before Gilardino’s revisions to the text were complete. For the editor this created something of a dilemma, as he could hardly print emendations unauthorised by the composer:

On the one hand, the musician’s outspoken desire that his works be published with an exhaustive instrumental glossary invalidated beforehand all schemes to circulate an edition of the bare manuscript; on the other hand, the absence of any authority (which could proceed from the author alone) to endorse my revisions with, ruled out any plan to force the same upon all readers.

Acting in concert with the publisher and with Mrs Clara Castelnuovo-Tedesco, the composer’s widow, I thus decided to have the original setting printed out along one basic stave (with the mending of mere slips) leaving it to one additional parallel stave to convey my own elaboration of the text, whenever needed or expedient.[5]

Thus when listening to a recording of this work with score in hand, it is fascinating to see which version the performer chooses, either the raw Urtext, the suggested emendations or even another solution at the player’s discretion.

The works dealt with so far were composed some years after Castelnuovo-Tedesco first started writing for the guitar. He was, therefore, by this time quite accustomed to the processes of editorial attention essential before his music could become natural on an instrument which he did not play himself. The composer provided the musical inspiration and players then edited the work into shape for him. In the later Bèrben publications (such as Platero y yo), it is fascinating at times to see how far the composer can be at variance with the instrument’s actual capabilities while putting forward ideas which are in themselves very well in accord with the guitar’s lyrical nature.

Castelnuovo-Tedesco became interested in writing for the guitar after meeting Segovia at the International Festival of Music, Venice in 1932. Segovia had travelled to Venice with Manuel de Falla, in order to enjoy a short holiday. Falla was there to attend the premiere of El retablo de Maese Pedro (Master Peter’s Puppet Show), and Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s First Piano Quintet (1932) would also receive its debut.

On the last day of the Festival, Segovia, by chance, found himself travelling on the same vaporetto (the ferry which transports the inhabitants of Venice round the city) as Clara Castelnuovo-Tedeso the composer’s wife. Segovia spoke to her about his profound wish that Mario would compose for the guitar, asking Clara to intercede on his behalf. Sure enough, on his return home to Usigliano, Castelnuovo-Tedesco wrote expressing his desire to write something for Segovia, but explaining that he neither knew the instrument nor had the remotest idea how to compose for the guitar. In return Segovia sent him two pieces which demonstrated the guitar’s capabilities, Sor’s Variations on a Theme of Mozart, op. 9, and Ponce’s Variations on Folia de España and Fugue.[6]

Thus began a most remarkable relationship between composer and artist which was to produce so many significant contributions to the repertoire. Castelnuovo-Tedesco would continue to compose for the guitar from 1932 to 1967, providing a quantity of substantial works, including concertos, chamber music, a piece for flute and guitar, choir and guitar, and guitar duos, as well as many solos. His first offering to Segovia was Variations à travers les siècles (Schott 1932; GA 137). This composition, divided into six variations, Chaconne, Preludio, Walzer I, Walzer II, Tempo del Walzer I, and Fox-Trot, is an exploratory work developing appropriate styles. It includes a Chaconne and Preludio in the style of Bach, waltzes reminiscent of Schubert, and a fox-trot recalling twentieth-century dance rhythms with jazz implications. On receiving the work, Segovia wrote back to tell Castelnuovo-Tedesco, ‘It is the first time that I have met a musician who understands immediately how to write for the guitar.’[7]

On 3 April, 1934, Segovia travelled to Florence to give the Italian premiere of Variations à travers les siècles, along with the first performance of Ponce’s Sonatina meridional. According to Corazón Otero, it was after this event that Segovia first requested the Italian composer to write ‘an important work, a sonata in four movements’.[8] Castelnuovo-Tedesco then set about composing his Sonata (Omaggio a Boccherini), op. 77. This was premiered by Segovia in his Paris recital of June, 1935, at the same recital as the premiere of his arrangement of Bach’s Chaconne (from the Partita in D minor, BWV 1004). Sonata, op. 77, was published by Schott in the same year.

This was followed in 1935 by Capriccio Diabolico (Omaggio a Paganini), op. 85 (Milan: Ricordi, 1939), which paid homage both to Paganini, the legendary violinist, and to Segovia, the contemporary Paganini of the guitar. The following year saw the composition of Tarantella, op.87a (Ricordi, 1939), and Aranci in fiori (‘Orange Blossom’), op. 87b. Though edited by Segovia, the latter was dedicated to Aldo Bruzzichelli, a close friend of the composer. When Bruzzichelli’s son had influenza, it was Castelnuovo-Tedesco who supplied oranges, considered one of the best cures for the affliction, (hence the title). Bruzzichelli later became a music publisher in Florence (one of his publications being Reginald Smith Brindle’s El polifemo de oro, 1963), and he was also to be the dedicatee of Platero y yo, op. 190.[9]

In 1937, after a recital by Segovia in Geneva, a critic wrote that Segovia would be ‘a great artist even if he played J’ai du bon tabac, the item in question being (more or less), the French musical equivalent of Three Blind Mice. Segovia complained to Castelnuovo-Tedesco about the shortcomings of critics. In reply the composer wrote a set of variations for guitar entitled Variations plaisantes sur un petit air populaire, op. 95, J’ai du bon tabac) (1937, published by Bèrben) and sent it to the critic. The movements were headed by appropriately expressive words such as ‘sneezing’, ‘groaning and jerky’, ‘smug and conceited’, ‘plaintive and monotonous’. and ‘quite agitated’, with a final variation entitled ‘L’inévitable Fugue’.(10)

During the Christmas festivities of 1938, Segovia visited Castelnuovo-Tedesco in Florence. The composer, anxious about developments in Europe, was thinking about going to live in the USA but had not quite decided. Segovia was very encouraging about the prospects of a new life for the composer. As a gesture of gratitude, Castelnuovo-Tedesco began work on a guitar concerto, which was finished by the summer of 1939.[11] The result was a refreshing work which has proved popular ever since, especially in terms of recording. The vocabulary of the three movements is traditional, as one would expect, yet its attempts to balance the guitar with the orchestra are innovative and imaginative. Of particular interest are the expressive cadenzas, tailor-made for Segovia to impress the audience with the guitar’s innate lyricism. The work was premiered in Montevideo, Uruguay on 28 November, 1939. Segovia performed it many times over the next few decades, and recorded the Concerto on 11 and 12 July, 1949, with the New London Orchestra, conducted by Alec Sherman. It was issued at first on a series of 78 rpms on Columbia LX-1404-1406 (1951), eventually emerging on an LP (Columbia 33CX 1020). The Gramophone, reviewing the recording in August, 1951, commented as follows:

This novel concerto opens with a most fascinating tune which is the best part of the work. The rest is very light, easy going and melodious, but it is pleasant to have this romantic vehicle to display Segovia’s magical art. He begins the slow movement alone with a tune of Neapolitan flavour, and plays so beautifully that I resented the intrusion of the orchestra. Try this light wine: it is well bottled and suitable for a summer’s evening.[12]

From Segovia’s point of view, there were still several fine works to come of interest. Rondò, op. 129 (composed in 1946 and published by Schott, GA 168), and Suite, op. 133 (1947, Schott, GA 169), were two virtuosic solo works, which somehow have not become well known. More popular have been Quintetto, op. 143, for guitar and strings (1950, Schott, GA 198) and Fantasia, op. 145, for guitar and piano (1950, Schott, GA 170), written for Segovia and his second wife, the pianist, Paquita Madriguera. Also destined to fall slightly by the wayside were a 1943 composition, Serenade, op. 118, for guitar and orchestra, and a Concerto no. 2, op. 60, for guitar and orchestra, written in 1953 and published by Schott (GA 240) over a decade later in 1968). All that was left for Segovia after that, apart from the later flowering Platero y yo, was the magnificent Tonadilla, op. 170 no. 5, on the name of Segovia, composed in 1954 (Schott, GA 191).

From the mid-1950s onwards Castelnuovo-Tedesco was even more amazingly prolific for the guitar, with nearly forty opus numbers of guitar music, some of them extended collections of pieces. But he now chose to dedicate solo pieces to a wide variety of personalities including Siegfried Behrend, Bruno Tonazzi, Mario Gangi, Christopher Parkening, Rey de la Torre, Oscar Ghiglia, Hector García, Ronald (and Henry) Purcell, Alirio Diaz, Ernesto Bitetti, Manuel López Ramos, Ruggero Chiesa, Laurindo Almeida, Jiro Mitsuda, Angelo Gilardino, etc.

Among other distinguished works of the post-war years are Romancero gitano, op. 152, for guitar and vocal quartet (1951) (Verlag Bote & Bock, ed. Behrend); Concerto in E major, op. 201, for two guitars and orchestra (premiered by Presti–Lagoya in Toronto in 1962, the year of its composition); Sonatina, op. 205, for flute and guitar (1965), dedicated to Werner Tripp and Konrad Ragossnig (Max Eschig, 1969); the remarkable Les guitares bien temperées, op. 199 – 24 Preludes and Fugues for two guitars, dedicated to Ida Presti and Alexandre Lagoya (1962, published in 1974 by Aldo Bruzzichelli, ed. Evangelos & Lisa); and, rarely performed, The Divan of Moses-Ibn-Ezra, op. 207, for voice and guitar (Bèrben).

The massive variety, the high seriousness of his approach to the guitar as an expressive medium indispensable in so many musical contexts, and his profound melodic genius indicate the presence of a composer unique in the annals of twentieth-century guitar. The division of his work between writing a substantial amount for Segovia and later dedicating music to so many other leading performers is fascinating. This divide surely enabled him to develop with a unique richness and complexity that would otherwise have been restricted. His imagination in terms of the guitar’s possibilities was boundless and he explored every avenue.

Julian Bream has just recorded Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s Sonata (Omaggio a Boccherini), op. 77. It is expected that this interpretation of the composer’s finest solo work, from an artist whose sense of romantic lyricism is unmatched by any other guitarist, will revive interest in Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s art. Neo-romanticism is now very much in vogue. A return to a deep appreciation and enjoyment of the musical values and inspiration of the Italian maestro could well be the harvest of this centenary year.


  1. Ruggero Chiesa, Preface to Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, Appunti, Preludi e Studi per Chitarra, vols. 1–4 (Milan: Suvini Zerboni, 1968).
  2. Ibid. Preface.
  3. Angelo Gilardino, Preface to Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, Platero y yo, for narrator and guitar, op. 190, vols. 1–4 (Ancona/Milan: Bèrben, 1973).
  4. Eduardo Sainz de la Maza, Platero y yo (Madrid: Union Musical Española, 1972).
  5. Angelo Gilardino, Foreword to Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, 24 Caprichos de Goya, op.195, vols. 1–4 (Ancona/Milan: Bèrben).
  6. Corazón Otero, Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, sa vida y su obra para guitarra (Ediciones Musicales Yolotl, l987), p 48.
  7. Ibid. p 49.
  8. Ibid.
  9. The information concerning Aldo Bruzzichelli was kindly provided by Angelo Gilardino.
  10. Corazón Otero, Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, p 59.
  11. Ibid. pp 66–67.
  12. The Gramophone, vol. XXIX, no. 339 (August 1951), p 53.

Copyright © 1995 by Graham Wade

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