Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco is, to most people, merely one of a vast number of composers - from this century or any other - whose name is slightly familiar, probably in this case from hearing something for guitar on the radio or in a concert once. Every day we are told that such-and-such a composer is 'unduly neglected' or a 'forgotten master'. Most of these composers do indeed have considerable merit; however, few of them can have written quite such a wide variety of music as immediately appealing and as rewarding for both performer and listener as Castelnuovo-Tedesco.
Castelnuovo was born and brought up in the Italian province of Tuscany and began composing at the age of only nine. In 1915 he began study with Ildebrando Pizzetti, one of the most influential teachers in Italy at the time. He also came to the notice of pianist and composer Alfredo Casella, who was an early proponent of his music, programming it in his recitals and promoting it in his many writings on new music. Castelnuovo was a successful pianist, performing as soloist, accompanist and chamber musician, and was involved in the formation of the Società Nazionale di Musica (later Società Italiana di Musica Moderna), along with Pizzetti, Casella, Gian Francesco Malipiero, Ottorino Respighi, Vittorio Gui and Vincenzo Tommasini (all, apart from Respighi, practically vanished from concert programs; one might almost be forgiven for thinking that Italian composition ceased for around 30 years after Puccini's death, although in fact the country was very active).
In 1938, Castelnuovo was forced by the rising tide of anti-Semitism in Italy to flee to America, where he soon found work as a composer of film music for MGM Studios. He contributed to over 200 films and at the same time somehow found time to write concert music, although he evidently found the experience of leaving his homeland shattering. In time, he became one of Los Angeles' most sought-after composition teachers, with pupils including John Williams, Henry Mancini and André Previn, the latter commenting that 'pupil of Castelnuovo-Tedesco' was virtually a requirement for young composers to be accepted at the studios. Apart from being admired as a composer, he was held in the highest esteem as a friend by all who knew him; his cataloguer Nick Rossi, for instance, commented, 'Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco was not only the kindest and most generous person I have ever known, he was also the most brilliant.' Castelnuovo's catalogue extends to opus 208 or thereabouts - not to mention works without opus number - including operas (one on 'The Merchant of Venice', another, 'Saùl', concertos for various instruments (his second violin concerto, subtitled 'I Profeti', commissioned by Heifetz), chamber music for many different combinations of instruments, ballet scores, oratorios and cantatas, nearly 300 solo songs with piano plus many more with guitar....
It is perhaps not so hard to see why Castelnuovo's music has not been more successful. At a time when to be anything but 'progressive' was a mortal sin in the arts, he must have appeared reactionary (writing tunes in the 1940s and '50s!) and therefore, by implication, sterile. Now that we have lost our horror of melody he is due for rediscovery and rehabilitation. Castelnuovo of course understood the pressures of modernism, as he made clear in this quote from an interview, which is also a beautifully succinct summary of his artistic creed: 'I have never believed in modernism, or in neoclassicism, or any other isms. I believe that music is a form of language capable of progress and renewal (and I myself believe that I have a feeling for the contemporary and, therefore, am sufficiently modern). Yet music should not discard what was contributed by preceding generations. Every means of expression can be useful and just, if it is used at the opportune moment (through inner necessity rather than through caprice or fashion). The simplest means are generally the best. I believe that my personality was formed to a decisive degree quite early, but what I have sought to do, during my artistic evolution, has been to express myself with means always simpler and more direct, in a language always clearer and more precise.'