New Critical Edition: Greeting Cards for Guitar

Diana Castelnuovo-Tedesco / News /

Although Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco described his musical Greeting Cards as a pastime, he continued to write them for 14 years, leaving a total of 52 works composed for various instruments. Now, the Greeting Cards he composed for guitar have been collected for the first time in a critical edition by Frédéric Zigante (Ricordi). The edition is available at Music Shop Europe.

What is a Greeting Card? To celebrate friends, students, and acquaintances, Castelnuovo-Tedesco created a “musical portrait” of each person.  The composer assigned notes on the ascending and descending chromatic scales to each letter of the alphabet, and, with the letters of the subject’s name, developed the thematic material for a composition in their honor.

Although today the Tonadilla on the name of Andrés Segovia is the best known of this series, the Greeting Cards for guitar include pieces dedicated to Angelo Gilardino, Christopher Parkening, Oscar Ghiglia and Laurindo Almeida, as well as several dedicated to non-guitarists.

Professor Zigante says: “The goal of my edition is two-fold. The first  is to make available, in one volume, all of the 21 greeting cards for guitar, which previously were published by five different publishers, two of which are no longer active.  The second is to present the musical text as the author had conceived it, without the revisions and modifications of the older editions which seemed to me in too many cases to be unjustified and overly invasive. While it’s true that Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco did not know how to play the guitar and therefore his pieces are not always completely idiomatic in every detail on the instrument, it’s also true that he was capable of calculating the potential for implementation of a work much more precisely than the previous editors were willing to recognize.”

Professor Zigante kindly agreed to share with us his observations about the human side of the Greeting Cards:

“During the nearly two years I worked on this new edition of Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s Greeting Cards for Guitar, many questions emerged. I was able to find answers for some of them during the course of the project; however, due to the rigor and the space limitations of the critical edition, I was not able to include all of these insights in the text that accompanies the music.

One of these questions was: what did the Greeting Cards mean to Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco? On the one hand, he was writing them only occasionally and in his autobiography he called them ‘little more than diversions’.  On the other hand, he continued to write Greeting Cards from 1953 to 1967. Was this not a contradiction? How can one write 52 compositions without them having any importance?

In my view, there are three main motivations for the greeting cards: the challenge; the joy of gift-giving; and the creation of a ‘portrait gallery’ of his relationships in music.

The Challenge. On the level of technical composition the Greeting Cards are truly a challenge to the abilities of the composer. The motifs (typically in the first couple of measures) generated randomly from corresponding the alphabet to the notes on two chromatic scales present a summary of all the things that, according to the classic canons of composition, one should scrupulously avoid in order to have a good theme upon which to develop: wide, often unusual, intervals, moreover repeated without any musical logic. Having overcome the initial shock of the random series, Mario Castelnuovo–Tedesco closed his semi-phrase with two more lines of invention that are his unmistakable musical signature. Based on this theme (or themes), he began to create the musical portrait of the dedicatee. Mario Castelnuovo–Tedesco was certainly not lacking in melodic inspiration and therefore didn’t need this game to find themes, so why then did he find it so interesting that he continued in this diversion for 14 years?  My idea is that in this project he appreciated the discipline of daily mental training to constantly renew and feed the absolute mastery he knew he had over his musical material. Putting himself to this type of challenge was nothing new for the composer. The Mario Castelnuovo–Tedesco of the Greetings Cards is the same person who, in the year of his diploma in composition, decided to write one fugue a day and ended up actually writing 365 of them. I like to think that Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco felt, in his later years, a similar sense of daily challenge which pushes a performer to continue daily practice of his instrument throughout his life.

The joy of giving. It’s an experience that I know very well: I don’t give birthday or Christmas gifts, but I give gifts to a friend or an acquaintance when it seems right, because the person is present in my life and in my thoughts. I also know how much more pleasure is given if the gift is crafted with one’s own hands and one’s own creativity. The joy of giving shines through in various letters that accompanied the gifts made of the Greeting Cards, and there exists one letter that I was not able to personally read,  but of which I know the content: Mario Castelnuovo–Tedesco demonstrates his pleasure in observing the many reactions to his musical gifts.

The creation of a ‘portrait gallery’ in music.  The musicians of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, in absence of printed music – which was rare –  or photocopies, often compiled notebooks in which they copied the works that they loved most. Opus 170 seems to follow in this tradition; however, it brings together musical portraits of people in the music world, be they performers, students, or friends, who were close to Mario Castelnuovo–Tedesco’s heart.  Their professional status mattered little; in his imaginary gallery, Mario Castelnuovo–Tedesco was happy to combine legendary performers such as Jascha Heifetz and Andrés Segovia with young students including André Previn, Christopher Parkening, and Eugene Robin Escovado. Behind these portraits there is a world, a private musical world, of Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco. This is a world in which a young student like Eugene Robin Escovado, the dedicatee of three Greeting Cards, received the Lullaby for guitar, which was not his instrument (he was a pianist) on the occasion of  his 26th birthday; besides the gift of the manuscript score, he received a performance of the work in the home of his Maestro by Andrés Segovia. One can only imagine what emotions and what affection are hidden in the little Lullaby for Guitar, and every greeting card hides a story of this kind.”

— Frédéric Zigante, April 2019