Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco titled his 1925 work for piano, Le Danze del Re David – rapsodia ebraica su temi tradizionali [The Dances of King David – Hebrew rhapsody on traditional themes]. The just-launched Online Thesaurus of Jewish-Italian Music enables scholars and musicians to identify and study specific melodies that may have inspired the composer.
In an article just published on its website, the Centro Primo Levi New York places Le Danze del Re David side-by-side with some traditional melodies of the Synagogue of Florence, highlighted in recordings that are now available online in the Thesaurus. These recordings give the listener an idea of the Jewish-Italian music that Mario would have likely have heard in his early years.
In his autobiography, Castelnuovo-Tedesco recounts that he dedicated the Danze to the memory of his maternal grandfather, Bruto Senigaglia. While perusing his grandfather’s library, he found a tiny notebook of prayers that Senigaglia, an amateur musician, had set to music. Nobody had ever known that Senigaglia had composed. Castelnuovo-Tedesco writes:
I had only one thought: that I should compose, in homage to my Grandfather (who in many ways had been responsible for my vocation and my career) a work that was worthy of him, that responded to his ideals and secret hopes — in short, a work of Jewish music! What he left in his notebook was, in truth, of little value, and I preferred not to adapt his themes. But I asked Mother to sing for me again the ancient melodies that Grandfather used to sing, and, together with a few others that I had heard in the synagogue, I used them as the basis for a rapsodia ebraica: Le danze del Re David.*
A performance of Le danze del Re David by Marcello De Vita at the Dallapiccola Days Festival, Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale Firenze, May 6, 2019.
The Online Thesaurus of Jewish-Italian Music was created by Centro Leo Levi per lo studio del Patrimonio Liturgico Ebraico in Florence in collaboration and with the support of the Regione Toscana, Centro Primo Levi New York, and the Viterbi family, San Diego. The Thesaurus is a map-based database that allows users to explore the diverse liturgical repertoires of the Italian Jewish communities. Those interested in learning more about the Thesaurus can join a virtual event on March 27, 2022. Our sincere thanks to Enrico Fink of the Thesaurus of Jewish-Italian Music and our friends at the Centro Primo Levi for these fascinating insights into Le Danze.
*Una vita di musica. Un libro di ricordi (Fiesole: Cadmo, 2005), p. 195. Unpublished English translation by James Westby and Diana Castelnuovo-Tedesco.