A Hollywood composer who vanished in the haze

February 20, 2018 by norman lebrecht


It’s the 50th anniversary next month of the death of Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, an Italian-Jewish composer who fled Fascism in 1939 and wound up writing film scores for Hollywood and concert pieces for Heifetz.

He was the principal teacher of Andre Previn and John Williams and a major influence on Henry Mancini, Jerry Goldsmith and more.

Yet, since his death in March 1968, Castelnuovo-Tedesco has been largely forgotten, his works absent from the concert hall and rarely recorded.

Happily, a new website launched this week to remedy the oblivion. Check it out here.

Comments (44)

  1. Jean says:

    I think it was Rautavaara who stated that if a composer is not rediscovered within 100 years of his death, he will never become part of the standard repertoire: all the music encyclopedias would have already been written – and nobody cannot take them back from the print and rewrite them all. For example, Charles-Valentin Alkan: a great composer but still not part of standard repertoire.

    1. Hilary says:

      True, Alkan isn’t part of the standard repertory but he has a fair number of extraordinary advocates( Hamelin, Gibbons, Viner among many others). He’s far from unknown thanks to the pioneering efforts of people like Ronald Smith and John Ogden.

      At the end of the day though, I think Alkan’s music falls short of greatness ( rather predicatable/square phrase structure, unremarkable melodic invention?) but I may need some help from more learned writers on this website to define this more carefully!
      He’s nowhere near comparable with the likes of Chopin, Schumann and Liszt. I’d rank him higher than someone like Moszkowski though.

      1. John Borstlap says:

        Probably it comes down to musical sensitivity and depth, which can give the simplest and most ‘average’ material the radiance of meaning. I always found Alkan very interesting but dry.

        1. Hilary says:

          I’d agree with that.

      2. harold braun says:

        Alkan is underperformed mostly because his music is pianistically unbelievably challenging.

        1. Hilary says:

          That’s a factor as well. The sheer stamina required is incredible, and very impressive to witness live.
          With that said, some of his most memorable pieces are his simplest eg. Barcarolle op.65 No.6.
          Even here, I’m not convinced he’s up there with the greats.

      3. Brian B says:

        Don’t forget a true Alkan pioneer and advocate, Raymond Lewenthal.

    2. FS60103 says:

      Good quote but total, rot of course. Think of Gesualdo, Monteverdi, Vivaldi…

      1. John Borstlap says:

        Also, every music history begins to waver a bit the closer the narrative comes to the day it is written, with the result that new histories always adjust those chapters to increased understanding, and adding a couple of new chapters with the same distortions to the bulk, a process which is repeated every X number of years. You can read very different versions of music history of the 1st half of the last century, for instance, in history books from different years.

        The Oxford Dictionary of Western Music – a tour de force by stern musicologist Richard Taruskin – has in its descriptions of the 20th century a quite different take on the various movements, and deconstructs the post-WW II modernist streamlining ideologies effectively. And of course he was sharply criticized by academia for not blindly accepting ‘received wisdom’, because if his vision were right, it would turn their own 20C music histories outdated.

  2. Mark says:

    A similar fate has befallen Joseph Achron (1886-1943). A distinguished composer and violinist, who studied with Leopold Auer, he is chiefly remembered as the author of the famous Hebrew Melody (and a few other Jewish-themed encore pieces). But there is much more to his legacy, including 3 violin concertos.

  3. Matthew Marshall says:

    He is very highly regarded by guitarists and his guitar works frequently performed and recorded worldwide and which have become part of standard repertoire for the instrument. He wrote the first guitar concerto of the twentieth century – for Segovia – in the late 1930s among some 50 other works for guitar. He is not at all forgotten by many of us!

  4. Vittorio Parisi says:

    I will conduct his concerto for piano and orchestra nr 1 on Tuesday Match 18 in Milan with the Verdi Symphony Orchestra. Pianist is Alessandro Marangoni. In Italy he has still performances, above all his music for guitar.

  5. Rob says:

    He also taught Nelson Riddle, who was famously described by Zubin Mehta as the “Gustav Mahler of popular music.”

    1. Ruben Greenberg says:

      Rob: Nelson Riddle dabbled with Classical music. He wrote a wonderful arrangement of Gershwin’s 3 Preludes, for orchestra. I wonder if he wrote anything else “Classical”.

  6. Nik says:

    The LSO last month performed the Genesis Suite, to which he contributed a movement.

  7. John Borstlap says:

    Difficult to make-up your mind about this violin concerto: it is very musical, offers ample opportunity for the soloist to show-off his prowess, it is well-made with a colourful scoring, inventive themes and motives pass-by logically in their enthusiasm, but it all remains at the surface.

  8. harold braun says:

    A wonderful composer,unfairly neglected nowadays.His 2nd violin concerto”I Profeti”is one of the best of the 20th century,especially in Heifetz´unsurpassed performance.A great teacher too,John Williams and Andre Previn among his students…

  9. Minutewaltz says:

    What about Moscheles?
    Does his music deserve to be played more in concert halls today?

    1. esfir ross says:

      Mosheles-yes! As great as J.N.Hummel, both deserve more played those gems. I played with cellist wonderful piece in Spanish style by M.Castelnuovo-Tedesco in Kishinev, 1970.

  10. Takis says:

    Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco has at least great reputation and percentage in classical guitar repertoire. It was the collaboration with Segovia and the insistence of the later, that he composed a lot of solo guitar works and a splendid concerto. The majority of great guitarists ( Williams, Parkening, Yepes, Diaz etc) performed his works. But there is a important absence, that of the great Julian Bream ( which seems to be on the vehicle of Britten, Walton Rodney-Benett, Rawsthorne etc-great company!)

  11. Cubs Fan says:

    Certainly one of the more listenable and enjoyable 20th c composers, if not the most profound. The concerto for 2 guitars is wonderful and should be better known. But like a lot of other neglected composers part of the problem is the difficulty in obtaining performance materials…And the cost. Just try to borrow from the MGM music library!

  12. Ross Amico says:

    Seriously, though he worked in film, I hardly think of Castelnuovo-Tedesco as a “film composer” any more than I think of Vaughan Williams, Shostakovich, or Honegger as film composers. He seemed to work mostly as a touch-up artist, filling in the odd cue here and there and sometimes, in a pinch, ghostwriting other composer’s scores. Often, he didn’t even wind up receiving on-screen credit. I know he did more — I think he received credit for maybe ten of the films of the dozens on which he provided assistance — but the only solo effort that springs immediately to mind is “And Then There Were None” (the version with Barry Fitzgerald).

    True, he knew the craft, and he trained a generation of composers who made their names in Hollywood, but Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s contributions to the guitar and violin repertoire have had more lasting influence than any of his music for the silver screen. In fact, I have yet to hear anything from this composer that has not been worthwhile. Not all of it is equally memorable, but a lot of it — especially the concertos — has stayed with me.

    As for the question of “greatness,” is that really all any of us are listening for? How many world masterpieces are out there anyway? The world would be a very boring place indeed if we were confined to the merely great. Good craftsmanship goes an awfully long way, especially in the service of a melodic gift like that of Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco.

    1. John Borstlap says:

      I agree with that last paragraph.

      But in case music life would want to offer space to something better than Philip Glass, it should not forget the standards by which some pieces have become core repertoire.

      “I have the simplest of tastes. I’m always satisfied with the best.” (Oscar Wilde)

      1. Ross Amico says:

        Glass has his place — and he certainly has his adherents — but give me Castelnuovo-Tedesco any day. He certainly had his standards, if not “Eroica” caliber standards.

        BTW – Some months back I heard a radio broadcast with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra of a piece by a John Borstlap. The same? It was a very good piece.

        1. John Borstlap says:

          If it was a good piece, then certainly the same. Jaap v Zweden premiered ‘Solemn Night Music’, which he repeated a couple of times in Hong Kong as well. And I agree concerning Castelnuovo-Tedesco. If the last century had been one without all those upheavels, wars, totalitarian ideologies, music like Castel etc. would normally have been played regularly, like Ernst Toch’s, Leo Smit’s, and so many others, and the Stockhausens and Boulezbians and Xenakises would have made-up only a tiny part of the performance culture – and performers would have continued to have a structural interests in new things, as audiences would have.

          1. Ruben Greenberg says:

            John: it’s good to hear the name of the unfairly-forgotten Toch. What a wonderful composer. Once again, I deplore how difficult it is to get the printed music of composers that are not in the public domaine. Publishers are of little or no help. At least the Netherlands has Donemus (is that the right name?)

          2. John Borstlap says:

            To Ruben:

            Indeed: Donemus publishes, as far as I know, all of Leo Smit’s music:


            Set-up as a heavily subsidized state publisher for Dutch music, Donemus fulfilled an ideological role in new music in Holland, until they sank when a charlatan elbowed himself into the directors’ position and was caught-out as a total failure – also suspected of embezzlement and bankrupting the accounts. The organisation was saved by an employee, loyal to all the scores, who restructured it as an independent and commercial publisher with an eclectic strategy, nowadays even spilling over the national borders. They even publish my work now, which was always contested in the past under modernist party rule.

            I would like to mention a brilliant work by neglected Dutch composer Marius Flothuis, who survived the concentration camps and went on after the war with writing music instead of joining the Dutch new music gang:


            Or Hans Kox, who is very old in these days, who was bullied by the new music establishment most of his life but by now completely ignored and carelessly condemned to silence:


  13. pooroperaman says:

    Mr New German Castle also has the best surname of any 20th century composer.

    1. Ross Amico says:

      Perhaps the best since Waldteufel (Wood Devil), in this regard.

  14. Alceste de Léon-Trégor says:

    As for Alkan, not forgetting Laurent Martin, Bernard Ringeissen, Pierre Réach, Stephen Osborne, Raymond Lewenthal, Stephanie McCallum, Vincenzo Maltempo, Alessandro Deljavan, Ashley Wass, Francesco Libetta, the late Aldo Ciccolini for the Symphonie (op. 39), Etsuko Hirose, Yeol Eum Son, Stefan Lindgren, Carl Peresson, and so on, which is not so bad for an underrated composer!….. Don’t you think?


    C-T’s Shakespeare Overtures are excellent. He was a fabulous composer. I’m unsure what the definition of “greatness” is, but I’m sure it is different for everyone. Go to YouTube and hear his two-act comic opera La Mandagola.

    1. John Borstlap says:

      A delightful work:

      … with touches of Puccini’s ‘La Bohème’ but with much less vulgarity. And, like the Puccini, brilliantly made. One of those 20C composers falling victim to postwar ideologies of progress – because MCT writes traditionally and finds fresh invention with a ‘common practice’ language.

  16. boringfileclerk says:

    He was one of the few tonal composers of the 20th century that wasn’t a complete hack. It is a crime to neglect his guitar quintet. A revival of his works would be most welcome.

    As for Alkan? He was a great, but uneven composer. The only pianists who could make the case for him are Hamelin and Osborne, and that’s because they are two of the few who can play him to get to the music.

    1. John Borstlap says:

      Alkan was also the first composer, in Europe at least, who died of bhuddism (he fell from a ladder when reaching-out to a large tome about the religion in his library which fell on his head).

  17. The View from America says:

    His guitar oeuvre alone guarantees that Mario Castelnuovo-
    Tedescso will never be “vanished in a haze,” as the SD headline so inaccurately contends …

  18. Saul Davis Zlatkovski says:

    There are different issues at work here. He has been recorded quite a bit. But his oeuvre is so enormous, and there is some sloppiness with the publishing of his music, and those interfere. Harpists are very happy to play his Concertino, but his two solos are hard to find, if not out of print. Listening to a cd of his piano music, it is all beautiful, but not all top notch. He is something of a 20th-century Boccherini. Some of his pieces deserve fame, others do not. Like many other mainstream 20th-century composers, the sorting-out process has not yet happened, because he was not an academic or avant-gardist. The Jewish content of his music is significant, and he is also significant as someone who engaged in modal writing, acoustic harmonies (use of fifths and fourths) and impressionist style. Sadly, the most important 20th-century composers, the mainstream ones, are the most overlooked. But there are indeed others far more neglected. The other culprit in this is the publishers, who, by putting works only in the rental catalog, rendered them basically unavailable for performance with exorbitant rates and the inability to easily peruse scores. They are repairing that now, with online perusal, but there’s a lot to catch up on, and that’s only a few of them.

    1. boringfileclerk says:

      Fair points all around, although he is a far superior composer to Boccharini. One wonders if the publisher or the estate is to blame. Sorabaji’s estate refuses to release all his works (even though it is vastly overrated). And why is Camillo Schumann’s output held hostage? He’s been long gone now, and has a vast array of works yet to be discovered.

    2. John Borstlap says:

      Musicologist Pauls’ dissertation about the suppression of the tonal tradition in the last century:

    3. Ross Amico says:

      Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s “Omaggio a Boccherini:”

  19. Sharon says:

    The website mentions that he is receiving more attention, at least in Italy. In January 2018 he posthumously received an award from the Italian government, a biography was published in Italian, and in conjunction with that there was a public seminar. There is a portal on the website for those who want permission to perform his work which indicates to me that the website is sponsored by his estate. Hopefully the biography (perhaps it could be translated into English?) and the website will increase interest as well as make it easier to receive permission to perform his work.

  20. Bill Ecker says:

    I will echo those who posted here about Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s guitar works, they are regular repertory for that instrument. That said, in the late 1940’s, my Grandmother who was a concert and operatic soprano commissioned the composer to orchestrate his Shakespeare songs, something he had not done previously. I have his original correspondence with her about the project. (Written between 1944 and 1950) She did not record them, I do not have any of her programs featuring them with orchestra, nor do we have any manuscripts, fair copies, or blue lines. Has anyone here ever heard them performed with orchestra? There are piano-vocal recordings and they are quite beautiful. My guess is he was too busy and never completed the work.

  21. Bobby V says:

    Just to point out that Julian Bream, though not recording the guitar concerto, did record the Ommagio a Boccherini. Can’t say I entirely blame him over the concerto. I quite like it, but it has more syrup than a maple tree and so is unlikely to appeal to Julian, who has better taste than I do.

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