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ClassicsOnline Home » CASTELNUOVO-TEDESCO: Naomi and Ruth / Sacred Service for the Sabbath Eve
By John von Rhein
Naomi and Ruth, Op 137 • Sacred Service for the Sabbath Eve, Op 122
Naomi and Ruth
Naomi and Ruth (1947) was Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s first non-liturgical biblical choral work, a genre to which he later dedicated himself intensely. It was written for women’s chorus and a soprano soloist who takes the role of Naomi. Ruth’s responses, described by the composer as “characteristically universal,” are left to the chorus. Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s interest in the story went back to his childhood. Naomi happened to be his mother’s name as well, and as he later wrote:
In some way I identified with this biblical character through my mother (and at the same time I identified myself with her)…Some time later I found another “connection”: The other principal female character, the mild and faithful Ruth, resembled my wife, Clara…In a certain sense, it really was my “symbolic autobiography,” existing before I decided to write—to open my heart [to]—these pages.
In 1948 Castelnuovo-Tedesco was visited by his friend, composer Ernst Toch, a refugee from Vienna then living in Los Angeles. Toch gave him the score to his cello concerto (op. 35). Moved by the affection expressed by Toch’s gift, Castelnuovo-Tedesco returned the gesture by presenting Toch with a manuscript copy of this cantata. Almost immediately he regretted what he had done, writing later:
To Ernst, who was such a complex and mature musician, this cantata must seem much too simple and childlike. But with extreme surprise (and immense gratification) I received a letter from Toch …telling me that “this is one of the purest and most touching compositions you have ever written.”
Naomi and Ruth (subtitled A Small Cantata for Women’s Voices from the Book of Ruth) was premiered in Los Angeles in 1949 by the Los Angeles City College Philharmonic Chorus conducted by Hugo Strelitzer, with the composer at the piano. It was orchestrated subsequently.
Sacred Service for the Sabbath Eve
Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s Sacred Service for the Sabbath Eve was written originally in 1943 on request from his friend Rabbi Nahum Immanuel, interim rabbi at Beth Sholom Temple in Santa Monica, California. Its premiere was originally envisioned for that Reform congregation and is therefore set to the prayer texts as they appear in the Union Prayer Book—except for the sections added later.
Castelnuovo-Tedesco had already written several individual prayer settings, beginning with l’kha dodi (1936) at the request of an Amsterdam synagogue, for an a cappella male choir (his first setting of the Hebrew language). He had revised it for mixed choir and organ, at Cantor David Putterman’s invitation, for a performance in 1943 at the New York Park Avenue Synagogue’s first service of new liturgical music. Although Castelnuovo-Tedesco had not been actively involved in the Florence synagogue prior to his emigration, apart from holy day attendance, he had become acquainted with cantors and synagogue music directors in Los Angeles, who invited him to compose for their congregations. Yet he had never attempted an entire unified service, and he saw Rabbi Immanuel’s invitation as an opportunity to write a work dedicated to his mother’s memory. He later recalled that his mother had helped him with the Amsterdam l’kha dodi by transliterating the words with correct accentuation for him and making a literal translation. Also, at that time he was feeling increasingly anxious about the fate of his many relatives left behind in Europe, and he felt “filled with Jewish inspiration.”
As he began to contemplate the work, Castelnuovo-Tedesco was confronted by various obstacles. One was the mixed formal use of English and Hebrew, including English recitation, in the American Reform service (and in many Conservative/non-Orthodox services of that time as well). This seemed alien to him and presented an aesthetic imbalance. His resolution was to fashion organ accompaniments for those recitations, in which themes of preceding choral parts were developed in what he called a “melologue.” His resolve was to compensate for this perceived aesthetic dissimilarity by striving all the more for stylistic unity throughout. The organ, too, was problematic for him—not for reasons of Jewish legal prohibitions of musical instruments on Sabbath or other holy days, but because he held the common but historically erroneous prejudice against its sound as one associated with Western Christian churches. In fact, the organ had been introduced into Reform and Liberal synagogues in Germany in the 19th century, not to emulate Christian services, but for musical-aesthetic reasons and to facilitate orderly, Western-style congregational hymn singing. Moreover, organs had existed in a number of western and central Europe Orthodox synagogues as well, albeit only for legally permitted occasions such as weddings, non–holy day services, and liturgical concerts. In any case, Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s subsequent use of the organ in his liturgical pieces after the Sacred Service suggests that he might have come to appreciate its sound within the context of Jewish worship.
An academic issue posed a more interesting conceptual problem for Castelnuovo-Tedesco in selecting an overall musical approach: whether to attempt to base the service on historical ground—specifically on early liturgical traditions or practice. He appears to have flirted briefly with the idea of using a reconstructed sound of Jewish worship in antiquity, or at least in its pre-modern stages. This would have meant consciously avoiding Western classical techniques, and he came to the conclusion that little could be known of the actual musical sound of early Hebrew liturgy, especially with its continuous acquisitions of musical features of host countries and cultures over the centuries. Also, he realized the difficulty of finding a way to utilize organ, part-writing, polyphony, or harmony in any such reconstruction, since he knew that none of these had existed in those early periods and that choral monody had probably prevailed. So he determined instead to follow specifically the Italian polyphonic tradition, in that way at least relating the work to another, albeit non-Jewish, aspect of his Italian heritage. He also saw a historic rationale for turning to the approach of the 16th and 17th century Italian composer Salomone Rossi, the first to apply independent Renaissance polyphony to Hebrew liturgy.
The Sacred Service was completed at the end of 1943, although the composer later remarked, “In a way, it was never finished.” The premiere, however, never occurred at the Santa Monica synagogue. By early 1944 Rabbi Immanuel had left that interim post to become rabbi of the new Westwood Temple, in no position yet to cover the costs of the large professional choir the composer required; neither was the Santa Monica synagogue interested or able, since Rabbi Immanuel appears to have been its primary champion. Castelnuovo-Tedesco withdrew the service.
Two years later Cantor Putterman excerpted three movements from the full service—mi khamokha, May the Words, and kaddish—which were performed at the Park Avenue Synagogue in 1945. Castelnuovo-Tedesco had offered Putterman these three movements only on the condition that the Sacred Service would soon be performed in its entirety. Until that time, the Park Avenue services, which had become annual events, presented only individual compositions by a variety of composers in a single evening, but not yet entire services by single composers. However, Castelnuovo-Tedesco, stressing that he felt this to be his best work in many years, insisted that he wanted “for the first time to have it performed in its entirety; if not entire, I would not give you permission.” In 1950 the Sacred Service was premiered in full at Park Avenue, with some newly added movements. It was also recorded by the State Department for radio broadcast on the Voice of America. As the first complete singly composed service of the Park Avenue Synagogue commissioning program, it established a precedent, and that practice continued until at least 1976.
For the expanded Sacred Service for Park Avenue, Castelnuovo-Tedesco composed four brand-new settings for l’kha dodi, kiddush, ma tovu, and hashkivenu. These have been incorporated into the present Milken Archive recording.
Castelnuovo-Tedesco commented that he felt this to be one of his “most purely inspired works,” one of the pieces in which he began to “find” himself again. He observed that it had been inspired by neither dramatic nor mystical feelings, but by recollections of serenity from his early home life. How much the Service meant to him on an inner spiritual level is suggested by his expressed fantasy of being able to “hear it once in the synagogue in Florence” where his family had worshiped. When he sat among the congregation and watched the Torah being taken from the Ark, that synagogue had evoked in him an image of Jewish antiquity, and its image was filled with memories of family traditions. In America he had come to associate it with his personal Judaism. But in a special emotional way it indicates a return full circle to Jewish roots.
Castelnuovo-Tedesco fantasized that if he were ever to write a second service, it would either be in a completely nontraditional style or it would involve a faithful artistic resurrection of authentic tradition going back to antiquity. In that case he would employ a choir monodically—as he correctly supposed was the case in the ancient Temple and for a good time afterward—but with all the instruments enumerated in the Bible (in Psalm 150) instead of organ. “It would be a kind of jazz band, as was probably the Levites’ orchestra (in the Temple). Certainly no synagogue in America, perhaps in the whole world, would consent to perform it.” Of course, there had been the Bloch and Milhaud services with orchestra, performed in a prayer service context, albeit classically employed. And in the 1960s there were a few willing experimenters, even with actual jazz and blues ensembles, who found synagogues willing to accommodate. But for the most part Castelnuovo-Tedesco was correct in his skepticism. It is a pity that he did not live to witness that time when a few more musically visionary synagogues, including even some within the Conservative movement, were willing to experiment with orchestral services. Some, such as …And David Danced, by Charles Davidson (in a basically traditional Conservative congregation), have been successful in using the orchestra not only to retain but also to reinforce the prayer experience, in no way expropriating the congregation’s own role. Castelnuovo-Tedesco would have approved.
Even though Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s own tradition was Sephardi, the Sacred Service was written according to Ashkenazi pronunciation and accentuation, which was the prevailing practice in America, except in specifically Sephardi congregations. Many Conservative and then Reform—followed even by some Orthodox—synagogues only gradually adopted the Sephardi pronunciation later, in order to be synchronized with the official pronunciation in Israel.
Prayers My Grandfather Wrote
When Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco was nine years old, his maternal grandfather, Nonno Senigaglia, suffered a heart attack while walking in the street on Sabbath evening. The composer later recalled that his grandfather asked to be brought to the synagogue, “where he prayed for the last time; and then, brought back to his home, he died peacefully a few hours later—a wonderful death.” Some time after his death, the family discovered a small notebook in which he had notated music for several prayers. Nearly sixty years later, his grandson, then living in Beverly Hills, California, arranged one of those musical prayers into a set of variations for organ as Prayers My Grandfather Wrote: Sei Prelude per organo sopra un tem di Bruto Senigaglia. In the 1962 foreword to the piece, Castelnuovo-Tedesco wrote, “Now the little book [of my grandfather’s prayers] is exactly one hundred years old; the first entry (a simple ‘tone row’ marked as a figured bass) is dated 1862. And, now a grandfather myself, I have taken some of grandfather’s simple themes, developing them into a series of short preludes for organ.”
Adonai Ma Adam, Yoshev B’seter, and Shiviti
(from Memorial Service for the Departed, Op 192)
These three settings are excerpted from the composer’s collection of memorial liturgy, Memorial Service for the Departed, written in 1960 on commission by the Cantors Assembly of America. (The other prayer included is ma enosh.) These are among the most commonly recited liturgical texts or Psalms for memorial services and funerals in all Jewish orientations. The commission came at a time when Castelnuovo-Tedesco was enjoying some of his greatest success in both Italy and America. He had just received notice that his opera The Merchant of Venice, which had been awarded the Campari Prize in 1958, would be premiered in Florence at the 1961 Maggio Musicale. The return to Italy for that performance would be a professional highlight, but also an emotional personal experience, for it brought into focus for him all the many friends, acquaintances, and family who died since he had left for America—and especially those who had been murdered in the Holocaust. This work was dedicated to his cousin, Lina Castelnuovo-Tedesco, but it was a special remembrance as well for his parents and brother.
These settings were intended for use at any memorial service, individual or collective, including the yizkor service on Yom Kippur and Festivals in those synagogues that use organ; and even for funerals in nontraditional contexts where organ could be used during the mourning period.
Neil W. Levin
About the Composer
MARIO CASTELNUOVO-TEDESCO (1895–1968) was born in Florence to an Italian Sephardi Jewish banking family that had been in Tuscany for more than 400 years. Pre-World War II Italian Jewry is generally divided into three groups: 1) Italian Jewry, mostly in the vicinity of Rome, who dated their residence there to the Roman Empire; 2) Italian Ashkenazim, whose geographical roots extended to Rhineland areas and in some cases to regions of what became the Hapsburg Empire, some of whom had immigrated to areas around Lombardy and Veneto, often as a result of expulsions from western and central Europe; and 3) Italian Sephardim, whose roots lay in pre-16th century Spanish/Iberian Jewry and who had resettled in Tuscany as refugees following the Spanish Expulsion in 1492. Castelnuovo-Tedesco and his family identified with the Sephardim, through his father—whose family had been actively involved in the Florentine Jewish community—even though his mother’s family believed themselves to belong historically to the older Roman group.
Some confusion has surrounded the hyphenated appendage—Tedesco—since that would normally signify German Jewry, hence Ashkenazi. In fact, the family name at the time of emigration from Spain had been Castilla Nueva. It evolved in Italy to Castelnuovo by the 19th century, during which Mario’s paternal great-aunt married a banker by the name of Samuel Tedesco (whose own roots are unclear). Since the Tedescos had no children, they named Mario’s grandfather their heir—on condition that he somehow incorporate the Tedesco name so that Samuel’s family name would not disappear. However, other branches of the family, including Mario’s cousins, continued simply to use Castelnuovo.
Castelnuovo-Tedesco began piano lessons with his mother and was composing by the age of nine. His formal musical education began at the Institute Musicale Cherubini in Florence in 1909, leading to a degree in piano in 1914 and a composition diploma in 1918 from Liceo Musicale di Bologna. His actual composition studies commenced in 1915 as a student of Ildebrando Pizzetti (1880–1968), one of Italy’s leading composers, and probably the most important musical personality in Mario’s early development. The respected Italian composer and virtuoso pianist Alfredo Casella (1883–1947) became an advocate of Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s music. Casella incorporated it into his own concert repertoire, and also into programs of the newly formed Societa Nazionale di Musica (later renamed Societa Italiana di Musica Moderna)—a group dedicated to performing music of young Italians and to exchanging new music with other countries. Well into the 1920s, Castelnuovo-Tedesco was identified with that society, dubbed a “futurist” group by its critics. Even though that characterization was intended as pejorative, the societal affiliation gave Castelnuovo-Tedesco his needed cachet and exposure both in Italy and across Europe by placing him in the same context with its other already well-established composers.
Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s growing European reputation was further aided by performances of his music under the aegis of the International Society of Contemporary Music, formed after the First World War in part to reunite composers from previously belligerent nations. Its first festival was held in Salzburg in 1922.
The composer’s first large-scale work was his comic opera, based on a Machiavelli play, La Mandragoa, which received its premiere at the Teatro La Fenice in Venice in 1926 and was awarded the Concorso Lirico Nazionale prize. Concurrently with regular performances of his works during the 1920s and 1930s, Castelnuovo-Tedesco was active as a performer and critic. He accompanied such internationally famous artists as Lotte Lehman, Elisabeth Schumann, and Gregor Piatigorsky; played in the Italian premiere of Stravinsky’s Les Noces; gave solo piano recitals; and wrote for several Italian journals.
Musicologists such as James Westby and others have observed in Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s early works a significant number of Pizetti’s contrapuntal techniques, French Impressionism (including Ravel’s neo-Classical side), and an attraction to polytonalism and harmonic exploration.
Castelnuovo-Tedesco is often associated most prominently with his works for classical guitar and his contributions to that repertoire, and it is probably upon that medium that his chief fame rests. At the International Festival in Venice in 1932 he met the already acclaimed Andrés Segovia, probably the most famous guitarist of the 20th century, who later remarked that Castelnuovo-Tedesco was the first musician he had known who understood immediately how to compose for his instrument. That association resulted in his unintentionally neo-Classical Concerto in D for guitar (op. 99, 1939), and eventually in a catalogue of nearly 100 guitar works. Castelnuovo-Tedesco always credited Segovia for his initial inspiration. Regarding stylistic categorization, Castelnuovo-Tedesco wrote later in his career that he “never believed in modernism, nor in neo-Classicism, nor in any other ‘isms’ ”; that he found all means of expression valid and useful. In his autobiography he recalled that Manuel de Falla had cautioned him against “graphic contrivances” of modern music—a warning he appears to have heeded. He rejected the highly analytic and theoretical style that was in vogue among many 20th-century composers, and his brand of expressionist tendencies thus separated him increasingly from the mainstream of contemporary composition of the so-called serious or high art vein. In general his musical approach was informed not by abstract concepts and procedures, but by extramusical ideas—literary or visual. He insisted that vocal music must be “symbolic” of the text, and he applied a similar attitude toward a visually generated instrumental music.
Castelnuovo-Tedesco articulated three principal thematic inspirations at the core of his musical expression: 1) his Italian home region; 2) Shakespeare, with whose work he was fascinated; and 3) the Bible, not only the actual book and its narratives, but also the Jewish spiritual and liturgical heritage that had accumulated from and been inspired by it over the centuries. This natural gravitation toward biblical and Judaic subjects resulted in an oeuvre permeated by Jewish themes.
Just when anti-Semitism was rapidly becoming more overt in Europe, even prior to the German electorate’s surrender to the National Socialists, in 1933, Jascha Heifetz approached Castelnuovo-Tedesco to compose a violin concerto. The composer seized upon that invitation as a vehicle to express his “pride in belonging to a persecuted people, and to explore that sentiment…in some large work, glorifying the ‘splendor of past days’ and the burning inspiration that inflamed the ‘envoys of God,’ the prophets.” The resulting work was his Violin Concerto no. 2 (1931), I Profeti.
By about 1933, ten years after the Italian Fascists had come to power, a specific Fascist attitude vis-à-vis the arts, later known as the Mystic of Fascism, had been formulated. This involved the controlled use of art as a propaganda tool. One manifestation of its policy was state control and absorption of all musical organizations, which was the catalyst for Toscanini to leave La Scala. Incidents of intolerance and then persecution of Italian Jews soon began to worsen at an increased pace. By 1938 Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s music was eliminated from radio, and performances were canceled—all prior to the announcement of the official anti-Semitic laws. When the 1938 Manifesto of Race was issued by the Mussolini government, Castelnuovo-Tedesco determined to leave Italy. He wrote to Toscanini, Heifetz, and the American violinist Albert Spaulding, asking for help. Toscanini replied with a telegram promising all possible help in sponsoring him. Castelnuovo-Tedesco always specified that he had emigrated, not “escaped,” and in 1939, just before the German invasion of Poland and the commencement of the war, he and his family left for America.
Like many refugee composers from Nazi-affected lands, Castelnuovo-Tedesco took advantage of the opportunity to devote his talents at least in part to film, and in 1940 Heifetz organized a contract with the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) film studio, launching his fifteen-year career as a major film composer. Between then and 1956 he was also associated with Columbia, Universal, Warner Bros., Twentieth Century Fox, and CBS, working on scores as composer, assistant, or collaborator for some 200 films. In addition, his influence as a teacher of many other “Hollywood” composers was significant. One may count among his students such people as Henry Mancini, Jerry Goldsmith, Nelson Riddle, John Williams, and André Previn, all of whom worked with him at one time or another.
Although Castelnuovo-Tedesco later sought to shrug off his Hollywood experience as artistically insignificant in his overall work, critical assessments point to the film industry as having both defined his American career and affected his musical style in general—as it did for many of his fellow refugee composers. In fact, he saw film originally as an opportunity for genuine artistic creativity—an alternative medium to opera (which he viewed as inherently European) for the development of a manifestly American form of expression. In his own initial perception, cinema was both “thoroughly new and congenitally American, offering possibilities for an authentic national art form.”
Apart from his film and Judaically related music, Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s catalogue includes orchestral works, chamber music, and a large number of choral settings, solo songs, and other vocal pieces, many of them set to words of major classical French, English, American, Italian, and ancient Greek poets and playwrights—such as Keats, Whitman, Shelley, Wordsworth, Tennyson, Longfellow, Rossetti, Aeschylus, and Virgil. A major part of his opera stems from his American period, including many of his Shakespeare-inspired pieces (A Midsummer Night’s Dream, King John, The Tragedy of Coriolanus, Much Ado About Nothing, and others).
The memorial concert for Castelnuovo-Tedesco a year after his death included a number of his Jewish works: Prayers My Grandfather Wrote, the wedding song, ‘V’erastikh li’, and liturgical settings from his Memorial Service for the Departed. Historian James Westby, an authority on Castelnuovo-Tedesco, aptly sums up the composer’s American experience and its relation to his Jewish sensitivity, quoting from his memoirs:
For Castelnuovo-Tedesco, composition in America became “an act of faith,” an act born out of “the faith I inherited from my father, from my mother, from my grandfather, and which is so well expressed in the words of the Psalm which my grandfather used to sing [part of the grace after meals]: ”I have been young and now I am old, yet I have not seen the just abandoned.”
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