This year marks the 50th anniversary of Italian composer Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s death. I first fell in love with this composer when I performed his tongue-in-cheek “Figaro” from Rossini’s Barber of Seville, dedicated to Jascha Heifetz. Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s granddaughter Diana contacted me after hearing me play this delightful opera paraphrase on the radio, and later helped me access some of his unpublished and unperformed works from the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.
As an Italian-American of Jewish heritage, I feel a strong connection to this wonderful composer and am troubled by his life story. Castelnuovo-Tedesco, having already faced censorship as a Jew, fled to the US in 1939 following the implementation of racial laws in Italy, and had to endure heartbreaking proof of betrayal from some of his closest musical friends, including Alfredo Casella, Walter Gieseking, and even his teacher Ildebrando Pizzetti. But it was thanks to others that he was able to start a new life in the US. Heifetz, Toscanini, and Albert Spalding actively helped him with the immigration process (Heifetz personally providing the affidavit), and Tossy Spivakovsky was one of the first to commission a new work for violin and piano upon his arrival in New York. Spivakovsky premiered the Ballade on November 23, 1940 at Carnegie Hall. The work was then left to gather dust until February 2018, when it received its first publication by Edizioni Curci, which enlisted my help editing the violin part.
“In ‘Ballade’ you can plainly discern a Chopin-inspired strophic structure with two dominant characters: one delicate and transparent, the other willful and passionate.”
Learning the piece from the manuscript and working on the first drafts while analyzing and trying to “hear” it in my head was inspiring and challenging in equal measure. I’ll never forget how excited I was at the first rehearsal with my longtime duo partner, pianist Francesca Leonardi, simply hearing it for the first time. We’re now revising this exciting piece for upcoming concerts, having recently recorded it as part of our new album.
Castelnuovo-Tedesco was accused of excessive “modernism” by his Fascist-sympathizing critics before the war and later his style was again misinterpreted as anachronistic. My feeling is that he simply never followed a fashion or musical current for the sake of it. His music is true to his character and ideals, making no concessions to his role as a successful composer of film scores and disregarding the neglect most of his work seemed destined to meet.
In Ballade you can plainly discern a Chopin-inspired strophic structure with two dominant characters: one delicate and transparent, the other willful and passionate. Violin and piano interweave the threads of both themes throughout, moving from gentle and cradling moments to fierce and virtuosic outbursts. I think this can be considered the most challenging aspect of the piece. You need to be able to maintain a balanced line while seamlessly jumping from one mood to the next.
The instrumental and technical obstacles to tackle are apparent right from the start. The violin begins alone and I must admit it took me days to find convincing fingerings that wouldn’t disturb the high-pitched, crystalline descending arpeggio. The whole work is strewn with tricky to downright difficult passages, including up-bow jeté in thirds and sixths, finger-crippling octaves, and leaps to impossibly high up on the fingerboard.
It’s fascinating to think how this piece, in the form of a Barcarole with its flowing melodies so clearly inspired by water (perhaps the rocking of a ship?), was written shortly after Castelnuovo-Tedesco stepped off the S.S. Saturnia and described the feeling of being “suspended like a cloud between two continents.”
Player Francesca Dego
Title of work Ballade,
Op. 107, for violin and piano
Composer Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco
Date composed 1940
Edition Edizioni Curci
This article originally appeared in the July 2018 issue of Strings magazine.