In celebration of Mario’s birthday on 3 April, we present a long-buried treasure: a recording of the world-premiere of The Song of Songs, which took place in Los Angeles on 7 August 1963. This scenic oratorio, a setting of the biblical book The Song of Solomon, was performed by a group of the city’s most gifted young musicians as part of a summer program, The Hollywood Theater Arts Workshop. Mario called these young performers “the surprise of America” and commented that this production was “one of the happiest experiences of my life”.
The composer described The Song of Songs as “perhaps the oldest libretto for music ever written”. In his view it was “certainly not opera”; he characterized it instead as “a mixture of songs and dances as were most primitive forms of theater.” Composed for a small orchestra, with extended choral writing, a limited number of soloists, and relatively simple staging, Mario’s composition was the workshop’s major project that summer. The orchestra, chorus, dancers, and stage production staff were all students, competitively chosen from the Los Angeles School system for this opportunity. The soloists were professional singers, both protégés of Lotte Lehmann: Stella Herman portrayed the Shulamite and Terence Monck was King Solomon. Mario’s mentee Nick Rossi was the program’s producer.
The composer attended many rehearsals and shared anecdotes about his life and work with the cast. He wrote about the experience in Music Journal (Nov. 1963) : “All my intentions were faithfully realized in the Hollywood production” and added, ” Somebody wondered how I could entrust the world premiere of one of my major works (and not an easy one!) to a student group, but […]I have faith in youth […].”
In 1973, ten years after the world premiere and well after Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s death, The Song of Songs was performed for the first time on the East Coast of the U.S. at the Park Avenue Temple in Bridgeport, Connecticut. The composer’s family hopes to have the opportunity publish the work in the future, so that it may once again be performed. In the meantime, the 1963 recording is the best introduction we have to this work. Thanks to Hugo David Vazquez Merritt, who recently unearthed the reel-to-reel tapes, transferred them to digital files, and optimized the original monographic recordings, we can now once again experience the magic of this premiere performance.
Listen to Song of Songs here.
Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, “The Song of Songs,” Music Journal, Vol. XXI, No. 8, Nov. 1963, pp.21–24.
Nick Rossi, “A World Premiere,” Music Educators Journal, Vol. 51, No.1, Sept.– Oct. 1964, pp. 52–54.