Spotlight on Suite 508 for viola and piano

Diana Castelnuovo-Tedesco / News /
Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco Suite 508 for viola and piano

Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco mused in his autobiography  that if by chance his name were still remembered 100 years hence, musicologists might hear the title Suite 508 and ask, “What happened to the other 507 suites?”

He explained the origin of the title: Suite 508 was the number of his apartment in the Kellogg Center at Michigan State University (MSU) when he spent a semester as Distinguished Visiting Professor in the autumn of 1959. His stay in Michigan took place at the height of his post-war career, after he had made international headlines when he won the International Campari Prize for his opera The Merchant of Venice.

Despite never having taught before at a university or conservatory, Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s experience at MSU was a very positive one. Fond memories of this time inspired him to write the most extensive of his  “musical greeting cards” based on the names of seven MSU colleagues. He described the work as follows:  “It is a suite, more or less, in the classical form, based on ancient dance rhythms; however, given the alphabetical sequence used, it has a purely modern flavor, indeed, it’s a bit acidic at times.”

Castelnuovo-Tedesco dedicated the movements to his very welcoming colleagues, as he recounted in his autobiography:

  • “Entrata”, for Walter Hodgson, the chair of the Music Department
  • “Pavane”, for H. Owen Reed, professor of composition
  • “Tambourin”, for Marie Iliff, the diligent and jovial secretary
  • “Aria”, for Gean Greenwell, voice teacher, who performed the role of narrator for my Jonah*
  • “Toccata”, for Ernst Victor Wolff, Professor Emeritus, piano 
  • “Gavotte Variata”, for Hans Lampl, conductor
  • “Giga”, for Sherman Krane, my favorite pupil at MSU. 

Written in 1960, Suite 508 was the first and only time Castelnuovo-Tedesco composed a work for viola and piano. The work was published in 2019 by Edizioni Curci, edited by Angelo Gilardino. More information about the edition is available here.

The Gran Duo Italiano (Mario Tortorelli, violin and viola; Angela Meluso, piano) included the world-premiere recording of the complete Suite 508 in the triple CD Castelnuovo-Tedesco: Music for Violin and Piano, released in 2018 on Brilliant Classics. Listen to their recording here.

During the COVID-19 pandemic Sheldon Person, violist with the Houston Symphony and an active chamber musician, was inspired to record  a quarantine video of  the “Aria” in which he performs both the piano and the viola parts! Watch it here.

*The Book of Jonah: a biblical oratorio for male chorus and orchestra, Op. 151