Greeting Cards + Passacaglia: Andrea De Vitis Interview

Diana Castelnuovo-Tedesco / News /
Italian Guitarist Andrea De Vitis interviewed on

Italian guitarist Andrea De Vitis has been lauded internationally for his concert performances and recordings, and he is also a renowned teacher. Until recently he was at the Conservatory in Avellino, Italy and starting this fall, he will be Professor of Guitar at the Mozarteum in Salzburg, Austria. He has recently added to his discography with recordings for the Naxos label of Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s 21 Greeting Cards for Guitar as well as the composer’s rarely-heard Passacaglia “Omaggio a Roncalli”. Andrea kindly agreed to tell us about this latest project, which has already received several excellent reviews.

Interview with Andrea De Vitis conducted by Diana Castelnuovo-Tedesco August 2023

You have performed Mario’s music for many years. Why did the Greeting Cards and the Passacaglia particularly attract you for a recording project?

The expressive potential of Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s guitar music has always resonated strongly with me; I find that his formal perfection and polyphonic rigor are balanced by an intense lyricism that is typically Italian. The Greeting Cards op. 170 and the Passacaglia op. 180 are works conceived in the same time period, and they share musical thinking that is quite different from the Florentine composer’s early works for guitar (Variations à travers les sièclesSonata “Omaggio a Boccherini”, Tarantella),which are distinguished by a musical language that is predominantly spontaneous and joyful; in contrast, the sound colors of the pieces that I recorded for this album are veiled in a sweet melancholy that at times erupts with dramatic force.

The Greeting Cards are heterogenous pages composed as miniatures and dedicated to friends, colleagues and others dear to the composer. These are works of great charm precisely because of their personal and intimate nature: for this reason I like to imagine Castelnuovo-Tedesco in the act of composing, smiling warmly and truly enjoying himself while creating these “musical portraits” of his dedicatees.

How did the new edition of the Greeting Cards, published in 2019, inspire you?

Frédéric Zigante’s musicological work is essential to the rediscovery of these little musical gems. Even just having all of the pieces collected in one volume makes the performer more conscious of the common elements among the various compositions of this musical corpus and helps one find the key to understanding these pieces, which are not things that one can immediately decode. In the Greeting Cards the composer uses musical cryptography techniques to create themes constructed from the letters of the dedicatee’s name; these melodies are sometimes rather daring and take Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s music in a less traditional direction when compared to the rest of his guitar works. 

What was your approach to studying these works and how did you create your own interpretations? I remember having heard you perform some of the Greeting Cards back in 2019 at the International Guitar Convention in Milan.

An interpretive challenge was finding the right balance between different stylistic parameters in these pieces. One aspect I strongly considered was the relationship between Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s musical language and the diverse influences he included in each piece to capture the musical personality of the dedicatee: from the folk-influenced character of the Cancion venezuelana, Tarantella campana, Brasileira, and Cancion argentina to the sweet lyricism of Lullaby for Eugene, Tonadilla and Canzone Siciliana; from the harsh dissonances of Rondel  and Volo d’Angeli  to the polyphonic linearity of Romanza  and Homage to Purcell . It was very important for me to study the relationship between the composer and each dedicatee,  by delving into the available biographical information, but also by means of my imagination and the stimuli provided by the scores, which are always rich in articulation marks and agogics.

From the number of plays I noticed on Spotify and from the reviews I’ve read, your splendid interpretation of the Lullaby for Eugene seems to be the most admired of all your tracks. Is it also your favorite? Among the 21 pieces are there others that you find particularly moving?

There’s no doubt that the Lullaby dedicated to Eugene (one of Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s students) has something unique: perhaps in this delicate but profound piece the composer managed to express in music the relationship of paternal affection and sincere esteem that sometimes happens between a teacher and his students. Other Greeting Cards that I consider particularly appropriate to include in the concert repertoires of every soloist are Homage to Purcell, a wonderful (and difficult) Passacaglia in miniature with a lively final fugue (which has some affinities with the first piece of Caprichos de Goya op. 195); in addition, the passionate lyricism of Romanza sul nome di Oscar Ghiglia and the renowned Tonadilla on the name of  Andres Segovia make these brief works precious repositories of emotions.

After your in-depth study of these intensely personal and intimate works, do you feel closer to Castelnuovo-Tedesco in some sense?

This project led me to discover aspects of Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco that I didn’t know before. On the music side, the “alphabetic” composition method he utilized for the Greeting Cards opens up his musical language to melodies and harmonies that are less traditional than the rest of his guitar work (since the themes of each piece are built on notes corresponding to the name of the dedicatee).  For this reason I think that performing the Greeting Cards means getting in touch with a phase of experimentation and research by the composer, who explores various stylistic variations in a similar way to Raymond Queneau’s linguistic explorations in his book Exercises de style. In my view, the Greeting Cards represent “style exercises,” little compositional puzzles in which Castelnuovo-Tedesco puts himself to the test…for fun!

However, these are not pieces written just for the composer’s own satisfaction, since these works also have an additional, fundamental component: friendship! Each of these pieces is a gift to a friend, a demonstration of esteem for a colleague, a display of affection “in music” for a person dear to the composer: the relevance of the composer’s feelings emerges spontaneously from the pieces, with an emotional depth that really made an impression on me.

As you know, we must thank Andrés Segovia for the Passacaglia because it was he who asked Mario write it. However, Segovia never performed the piece, and it has always remained a bit in the shadows. After having studied this work intensely, tell us your thoughts about it.

Andrés Segovia must be thanked once again because, from my point of view, this work undoubtedly represents one of the most interesting and intense works in the form of a passacaglia in our repertoire (alongside those of Alexandre Tansman, Joaquin Rodrigo and the concluding passacaglia of Benjamin Britten’s Nocturnal).  Due to the tritone interval that distinguishes it, the bass on which the entire piece is constructed has a dark and restless character, which has a particular affinity with the mysterious and “nocturnal” nature of the guitar. The structure presents different moments of great tension and drama and concludes in a splendid final fugue that is extremely stirring and dynamic. It’s also one of the compositions in which the writing of Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco adapts itself more to the guitar. (The excellent edition by Angelo Gilardino lightened some passages that were too dense, but the piece can also be played from the manuscript version.) In addition, the technical and interpretive commitment required of the performer is quite considerable. In summary, the Passacaglia “Omaggio a Roncalli” is a work that should be included more often in guitar recitals.

What aspect of this project has given you the greatest sense of satisfaction?

Recording a complete oeuvre is always a challenge that I find thrilling as well as instructive, because it requires an in-depth analysis of the composer’s language. In addition, it gives the performer the opportunity to affect (based on his or her own interpretive choices) not only a single composition but the entirety of the project. In this way, one has the chance to lead the listener on a true narrative path, which is composed of different stories but traceable back to the same original idea.

Thank you, Andrea, for your marvelous interpretations of this music and for sharing your musical insights with us!