Official release: June 2021
Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s autobiography (Una vita di musica [Florence: Cadmo, 2005]) is an essential source of information regarding the composer’s daily life, as well as the genesis and fate of his works. It ends with the account of July 1961. This interruption leaves us without first-hand information about an important section of his oeuvre, i.e. the works he wrote, between 1961 and 1962, for the guitar duo constituted by the genius guitarist Ida Presti and by her husband, Alexandre Lagoya. Both musicians enriched their repertoire with elegant and colourful transcriptions realized by Lagoya himself. Moreover, they never lost an opportunity for widening that same repertoire, soliciting the composers with whom they got in contact to write new works for them. So they did with Castelnuovo-Tedesco, who immediately responded to their request, dedicating, in 1961, his shining Sonatina Canonica op. 196 to the couple. This piece is reminiscent, not only in its title, of the eponymous piano work written in 1942-3 by Luigi Dallapiccola, with whom Castelnuovo-Tedesco had an enduring friendship.
The two guitarists’ satisfaction encouraged the Florentine maestro to undertake one of the most arduous endeavours in his fecund compositional career: this would lead him to create, in 1962, the powerful cycle by the title Les guitares bien tempérées: 24 Préludes et Fugues pour 2 guitares.
Even though the composer’s autobiography lacks specific information about this work, it is possible to find a remote antecedent for it in what Castelnuovo-Tedesco tells us about his education in the art of fugue-writing. Remembering the years when he had been Ildebrando Pizzetti’s favourite student at the Conservatory of Firenze, he wrote:
I had a blind trust in him, and I began to study zealously. I soon realized that this could not be avoided. Indeed, I became so conscious of this that, much later, when we got to Fugues (and actually had completed the regular yearly course) I thought I was not prepared enough for the exam, and I asked him if I could repeat the year. Pizzetti looked at me in astonishment: “Are you joking? If you are not prepared, who else is, in this class?”. But I insisted, and Pizzetti consented: “Well”, he said, “if you wish to waste one year, do as you please!”. During that year, as an exercise, I wrote one Fugue every day! And Pizzetti remembered that forever. Indeed, when, in 1939, before leaving for America, I went to take leave from him in Rome (at his master class at Santa Cecilia), he recalled that episode in front of his students, admonishing them: “You complain that I give you too much counterpoint! Just think that this man, when he was my student, wrote one Fugue every day! But you can realize it by observing the music he composes now”. In turn I must add, however, that, after so much exercise, I so loathed Fugues that I did not write any for many years!
In spite of his declared aversion for Fugues, we should observe that, in his oeuvre, this musical form recurs in some works, including some for the guitar, and in the service of expressive goals. This happens in the humorous cycle of the Variations Plaisantes sur un petit air populaire (J’ai du bon tabac) op. 95 of 1937, closing with L’inevitabile Fugue (“The unavoidable Fugue”); in the serious Passacaglia (Omaggio a Roncalli) op. 180 of 1956; another eloquent example of the fugato style is found within the first of the 24 Caprichos de Goya para la guitarra op. 195 of 1961 (Francisco Goya y Lucientes, pintor). The major work, through which the composer wished to recount his singular and victorious experience of apprenticeship in the complex architecture of fugue, is the piece he wrote to celebrate the fiftieth birthday of his esteemed former teacher: Fantasia e Fuga sul nome di Ildebrando Pizzetti op. 63 (1930). It is therefore clear, in our eyes, that Castelnuovo-Tedesco managed to overcome the malaise he felt when thinking about Fugues. By degrees, he was able to turn the technical dexterity he had acquired through the severe discipline he had undergone as a youth into a docile servant of his imagination. Decades later, the fruit of this process is felicitously and copiously displayed in the collection Les guitares bien tempérées.
One may wonder why the composer gave a French (rather than a German) title to the collection, considering the evident allusion to the masterpiece by Bach. The obvious answer, i.e. that the Ida Presti and Alexandre Lagoya (the valiant musicians who commissioned the work and to whom it was dedicated) were French citizens is of course correct, but perhaps slightly superficial. However, one may dig deeper, and observe that, in the sequence of Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s pieces, a turn happens in 1961. For diverse reasons (which I cannot examine here: suffice it to mention a general worsening of his health), Castelnuovo-Tedesco reached the nadir of his moods in the collection of the 24 Caprichos de Goya para la guitarra, which may be considered as his pinturas negras. Every disillusionment and bitterness, both recent and remote, which had sedimented in his past seemed to convene here, in his masterpiece for the guitar, forming a kind of an infernal Sabbath, where irony is, actually, the less negative feeling. He did not linger in that abyss for long, however. Beating his wings, in 1962 he retrieved his taste (all but missing in the Caprichos) for musical amusement and for a kind of joie de vivre. In that year he wrote the witty and funny opera The Importance of Being Earnest (L’importanza di essere Franco) after Oscar Wilde’s play. In Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s catalogue, Les guitares bien tempérées come immediately after, and were composed in the same year 1962. Their title in French – a very elegant and slightly frivolous language – thus contains also an indication about the music’s character. It is marked by the composer’s utmost pleasure in writing, having recovered his smile, his compassion and his capability to go beyond human miseries.
The music of Les guitares seems to be a caressing revenge with which the composer treated himself. It aims at the oppression which, in his youthful years, had made him feel a prisoner of contrapuntal academicism. The most characteristic aspect of the work lies in its diversity. Both in the free forms of the Preludes and in the rigorous ones of the Fugues, the composer’s imagination is entirely unconstrained. Rather, it seems to expand itself in the playful pleasure of mixing the most disparate influences (from Monteverdi to Gershwin, from Beethoven to Puccini, from Mozart to Grieg) and to unify them within a well-defined stylistic unity. The choice offered in this programme allows us to appreciate both the melancholic and the sunny aspect of Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s music. In it, his nature as an heir of the great Italian music tradition is mirrored: the melodic-vocal element is always at the forefront. It avails itself of so knowledgeable a rhetoric that it is imperceptible; music flows, hiding the structures to which it is firmly anchored.
Only a Concerto for two guitars and orchestra was missing, among the copious fruits of this cooperation between the creator and his interpreters. It was going to be written in that same year 1962, and it would immediately enter the duo’s repertoire.
On April 24th, 1967, during a concert tour in the US, Ida Presti suddenly died for an internal hemorrhage. Castelnuovo-Tedesco was deeply troubled by the news: the great French guitarist had conquered him not only by her art, but also by her extraordinary personality. He wanted to remember her with a composition for two guitars, by the title of Fuga elegiaca: it refers to the piece’s character, in which sweetness and anxiety, affection and trepidation are mixed.
The collection of Les guitares bien tempérées was issued in 1974 by the Florentine publisher Aldo Bruzzichelli, divided into four volumes, each comprising six pairs. Later, a more accurate edition was printed by Edizioni Bèrben, enlisting the help of the duo composed by Mario Fragnito and Lucio Matarazzo, who were also the first to perform the entire cycle in a series of two recitals.
Angelo Gilardino © 2021
Mono Guitar Duo: MoNo Guitar Duo was formed in 2017 by Italian guitarist Giuseppe Molino and Polish guitarist Anna Krystyna Nowicka. The two musicians first met in 2010 at Maestro Domenico Ascione’s class, held at the Santa Cecilia Conservatory, Rome. Before creating their duo, Nowicka and Molino had already won many awards at international music competitions. MoNo Guitar Duo’s main goal is to deepen and expand the musical repertoire for two guitars with their own transcriptions, including for four hands guitar. Their artistic vision is based on constant interpretative research, focusing mainly on opera and the instrumental repertoire of great Italian and Polish composers.
MoNo Guitar Duo’s most recent accomplishments include several International Music Competition prizes: 1st Prize in the chamber music category at the 18th International Music Competition in Caserta, Italy and the Most Distinguished Musician award at the 28th Ibla Grand Prize and many others.
Over the last three years, the two musicians have performed at numerous Guitar and Musical Festivals in Italy and abroad; they have also performed in front of distinguished opera experts at the prestigious Auditorium Santa Cecilia, Rome, where they played their interpretations of Rossini’s Overtures.
In April 2020, after the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, MoNo Guitar Duo launched the #Vivaldi93vsCovid19 international online music project, a unique worldwide collaboration that emphasises the importance of unity and resilience of musicians in time of Coronavirus. Thanks to this project, the two guitarists promoted a message of solidarity and uniqueness among musicians. Furthermore, #Vivaldi93vsCovid19 was mentioned by many Blogs and Italian newspapers, including the "Corriere della Sera" and "Blog della Musica".
In 2021 they recorded the Opera Omnia for two guitars by Italian composer Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco for the DaVinci Classics label.
In addition to this constant research, Anna K. Nowicka and Giuseppe Molino are deeply involved in musical education by giving masterclasses and seminars. They focus on the most important aspects of musicians’ training and growth, such as effective practice techniques, building performance confidence and the impact of wellbeing and creativity in a musician’s career.
Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco (b Florence, 3 April 1895; d Beverly Hills, CA, 16 March 1968). Italian composer, pianist and writer on music.