On 13 July 1939, Mario and Clara Castelnuovo-Tedesco boarded the S.S. Saturnia in Trieste with their two sons. Ostensibly, this was meant to appear a round trip concert tour with a return to Italy in August. In truth, the family was discreetly emigrating to America as a result of Italy’s recently adopted racial laws. Although the ship’s printed manifesto listed them as “Italian,” someone scratched through that and wrote “Hebrew” after each name.

This voyage marked the defining line that bifurcated the life of Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco. The Castelnuovo-Tedescos returned to Italy several times after the war, but never felt truly Italian again; at the same time, Mario and Clara, who became US citizens in 1948, never became truly American. “Suspended like a cloud between two continents” is how Mario described his life.

The Italian years: 1895-1939

Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s mother recognized his musical talent and set him on the path that took him to Ildebrando Pizzetti, the defining musical figure in his life. Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s musical voice became so pronounced that he became identified by the singular sobriquet, musicista fiorentino. That distinct Florentine sound, influenced by Debussy’s Impressionism and Pizzetti’s austere contrapuntalism, developed into a distinctively refined vocabulary based on successions of parallel chords, polytonal blocks of sound, long flowing melodies and a fluent counterpoint.

By the 1930s, Castelnuovo-Tedesco emerged not only as one of Italy’s leading contemporary composers but was also a sought-after pianist/accompanist and an insightful critic. His collaboration with three specific performers helped elevate him to international prominence and continued to have a major impact on his entire life and career – Andrés Segovia and the guitar, Jascha Heifetz and the violin, and Gregor Piatigorsky and the violoncello. In 1938, Fascist policies changed the trajectory of Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s life and career…

…at age forty-four, when I saw my successful career in Italy cut short, the edifice I had so patiently constructed destroyed by decree with a single stroke of the pen, I asked myself, ‘À quoi bon’? What’s the point? Both glory and renown appear to me, as indeed they are, ‘vanitas vanitatum’.


On 27 July 1939, as the family disembarked in New York, Toscanini’s personal assistant met them at the dock to help with arrangements.  An agreement had already been reached for the composer’s American debut performing his second piano concerto with the New York Philharmonic. Jascha Heifetz was making preparations for a contract with MGM that took Castelnuovo-Tedesco to Los Angeles, where he lived until his death in 1968. However, his career in America had a different emphasis. This is not to imply that there was a lessening in either quality or quantity of his American output, as is demonstrated by the internationally prestigious Davide Campari Prize, which he won in 1958 for his opera The Merchant of Venice. However, he did look towards the future with increasing focus on his list of students including John Williams, Henry Mancini, Jerry Goldsmith and Nelson Riddle. As a teacher, his impact on American music was far reaching, beyond just the world of film. After he was once jokingly introduced as the “Father of West Coast Jazz”, one writer remarked that this ”was very nearly telling the truth”. When speaking of his life, Castelnuovo-Tedesco reflected that music and composition in America became,

…an “act of faith”, 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, “I have been young and now I am old, yet have not seen the righteous forsaken.”