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Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco

Mario Castelnuovo-TedescoMARIO CASTELNUOVO-TEDESCO (1895 – 1968), an Italian composer born in Florence, was descended from a prominent banking family that had lived in the city since the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492.

Mr. Castelnuovo-Tedesco was introduced to the piano by his mother and composed his first pieces when he was just 9 years old. After completing a degree in piano in 1914, he began studying composition under renowned Italian composer Ildebrando Pizzetti and received a diploma in composition in 1918. He soon came to the attention of composer and pianist Alfredo Casella, who included the young Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s work in his repertoire. Mr. Casella also ensured that Mr. Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s works would be included in the repertoires of the Societa Nazionale di Musica (later the Corporazione delle Nuove Musiche), granting him exposure throughout Europe as one of Italy’s up-and-coming young composers. Works by him were included in the first festival of the International Society of Contemporary Music, held in Salzburg, Austria, in 1922.

In 1926, Mr. Castelnuovo-Tedesco premiered his opera La Mandragora, based on a play by Niccolò Machiavelli. It was the first of his many works inspired by great literature and that included interpretations of works by Aeschylus, Virgil, John Keats, William Wordsworth, Walt Whitman, Federico García Lorca and especially William Shakespeare. Another major source of inspiration for Mr. Castelnuovo-Tedesco was his Jewish heritage, most notably the Bible and Jewish liturgy. His Violin Concerto No. 2 (1931), written at the request of Jascha Heifetz, was an expression of his pride in his Jewish origins, or as he described it, the “splendor of past days,” in the face of rising anti-Semitism that was sweeping across much of Europe.

At the 1932 festival of the International Society of Contemporary Music, held in Venice, Mr. Castelnuovo-Tedesco first met the famous Spanish guitarist Andrés Segovia. The meeting inspired Mr. Castelnuovo-Tedesco to write his Guitar Concerto No. 1, one of the first of almost 100 compositions for that instrument, which earned him the reputation as one of the foremost composers for the guitar in the 20th century.

The following year, the Italian fascist government developed a program against the arts, which were viewed as a tool for propaganda and promotion of racial ideas. Even before Mussolini officially adopted the Manifesto of Race in 1938, Mr. Castelnuovo-Tedesco was banned from the radio, and performances of his work were cancelled. The new racial laws convinced Mr. Castelnuovo-Tedesco that he should leave Italy. He wrote to Arturo Toscanini, the former musical director of La Scala, who left Italy in 1933, explaining his plight, and Mr. Toscanini responded by promising to sponsor him as an immigrant in the United States. Mr. Castelnuovo-Tedesco left Italy in 1939, shortly before the outbreak of World War II.

Like many artists who fled fascism, Mr. Castelnuovo-Tedesco ended up in Hollywood, where, with the help of Heifetz, he landed a contract with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer as a film composer. Over the next 15 years, he worked on scores for some 200 films there and at the other major film studios. Rita Hayworth hired him to write the music for The Loves of Carmen (1948), produced by Ms. Hayworth for her Beckworth Productions and released by Columbia Pictures. Mr. Castelnuovo-Tedesco was a significant influence on other major film composers, including Henry Mancini, Jerry Goldsmith, Nelson Riddle, Herman Stein, John Williams and André Previn. However, his relationship to Hollywood was ambiguous: Later in life he attempted to deny the influence that it had on his own work, but he also believed that it was an essentially American art form, much as opera was European.

In the United States, Mr. Castelnuovo-Tedesco also composed new operas and works based on American poetry, Jewish liturgy and the Bible. His notable students included Louis W. Ballard. He died in Beverly Hills at the age of 72.

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