Tuesday, March 06, 2012

Fantasia for piano and guitar Op. 145--Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco

Quite a bit has been written about Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco for those who have any idea who he is.  He was a Jewish Italian composer who emigrated to the United States after Mussolini and the Fascists came to power.  While in the United States he ended up writing quite a bit of music in Hollywood, often filling in work when other composers failed to finish their work within the studio system.  He became well-known enough in the industry he got sought out by younger musicians and composers, one of whom is the now not-so-young John Williams.  Yeah, that John Williams, the one that wrote the music for Raiders of the Lost Ark and the Star Wars movies and a few others you and I have probably seen a few times by now.  Castelnuovo-Tedesco mentored the guy. 

Tedesco's own work was pretty conservative in his day.  He kept steadily composing mainly tonal music in a post-Debussy and post-Brahms neo-Romantic idiom during the hey-day of Stravinsky, Schoenber and other arch modernists.  If I were to cast about for a way to describe Tedesco's sound I might have to use a word that is usually employed as a put-down by a lot of critics, and that's to say Tedesco sounds Hollywood.  I, however, say that his work sounds Hollywood and mean that in the best possible sense of the term.  Just how Hollywood?  Well, if you're going to trust imdb ... this Hollywood.


His work on film I have not heard but his chamber music and music for guitar definitely exude a glamorous, upbeat, conservative, but stylish sound. You could fault him for his old-fashioned sense of style but his ideas are impeccably developed and winsome.  It happened he befriended Andres Segovia and eventually wrote the Fantasia this blog post is about. 

Now those of you who are fans of classical guitar music will notice that there have not been oceans of recorded music for the piano and the guitar.  There are obvious reasons for this.  The piano is capable of a great deal of volume and sustain the guitar cannot possibly match.  The guitar is capable of a wide range of timbrel changes and repeating notes across adjacent strings, sonic details a piano can easily cover up with one aggressively struck block chord.

Perhaps even more salient is the reality that the majority of piano/guitar literature is considered boring even by guitarists.  If you've ever sat through a merely average guitar recital you know that we guitarists can sometimes have a weirdly generous threshhold for not-very-exciting music compared to a merely average violin or cello or piano recital. This is to say when a guitarist considers some music really dull you can bet it's really dull.  So a mixture of sonic challenges in the combination and the tedium or lack of inspiration in the literature has meant that there just aren't as many commercial recordings of piano/guitar repertoire as there are of the warhorses.

Castelnuovo-Tedesco's Fantasia has been described by some as quite possibly the only duet for piano and guitar that actually "works".  Simply put, it's the one such duet where if you hear it once you'd ever want to hear it again.  Sounds mean and unfair, I know, but I'm blogging to get attention on some fine music so for the moment, bear with me.  I do, in fact, know there's more to the piano/guitar literature than just Tedesco. I just reaffirm that Tedesco wrote the best piano/guitar duet ever written.  His being an astonishingly capable pianist is part of why this is so ,and the other part was he befriended Segovia.  Talk about having an unfair advantage, eh?

The Fantasia is in two movements and opens up in D minor with a section marked "quiet and dreamy". On a bad day I have joked with my pianist buddy that this can come off as "slowly and tentatively" but it's wonderful writing for the two instruments.  The piano opens with a widely spaced D minor chord and the guitar jumps in quickly with a kind of chorale of planing block chords that outline the dorian mode in a simple, but lovely tune that leads both instruments arriving at A flat major dominant seventh. This contrast between a tonic and tritone will inform the rest of the movement and the fantasia as a whole.  Tedesco plays with how to resolve this harmonic tension structurally and melodically. 

The chorale of the guitar above the piano and drops out, the piano takes up the chorale idea and completes it in time for the guitar play an agitated rising line of triplets that culminates in a rising scale over which the piano jumps into sixteenth notes.  Tedesco has rapidly introduced a steadily shifting foundation for his core pulse in this opening movement. The triplets are going to set us up for a dancing middle section that become the bulk of the first movement. 

The quiet and dreamy section leads to an aggressive Spanish dance replete with the guitarist tapping the instrument in time to the piano's solo and zipping around with jazzy triads as the piano builds up to a climax of a subito piano section in which the guitar gets a dark, lilting phrygian solo, once again evoking Spanish ideas.  The climax of the first movement is a fiendishly difficult guitar solo that mimicks the chordal solo the piano played earlier over a rapid "buzzing" passage in which the guitar plays a dissonant chord over a piano solo mimicking trumpets. This section is lively and aggressive and slowly transforms and slows down into the quiet dreamy chorale the guitar played at the start.

But when the quiet and dreamy guitar chorale reappears it is no longer in D dorian but A minor and A minor quickly transforms into a shimmering A major section in which the guitar and piano revisit the ideas of the opening segment in a brighter, more cheerful mood.  The key has shifted from D minor to A major and ends with a piano chord punctuated by harmonics on the guitar.

The second movement is a lively dance that opens with frenetic figuration on the piano followed by a guitar solo featuring a descending pentatonic gesture that can be taken as an inversion of the idea from the danzante dancing section of the first movement.  After a minute of this lively back and forth between the piano and guitar an aggressive, stomping dance using rolled chords emerges with the guitar and piano trading block chords.  The guitar takes up the block chord motiff as the piano takes up the bustling pentatonic lines and builds steadily back into the mood and tunes of the start of the second movement. 

All of a sudden we have an evocation of the dorian harmonies from the start of the first movement.  These dancing figures we've been hearing in the second movement have taken on the harmonic language of the "quiet and dreamy" section that opened the work.  And within moments we're thrust into a surprisingly aggressive cascade of canonic passages--the pentatonic idea is relentlessly and explosively spilling over itself like wave after wave battering a shoreline.  The explosion of melody and chords steadily subsides as the guitar begins to emerge playing its solo with ever increasing note values and a declining tempo until it pauses for a moment on an F sharp major chord. The piano plays a rapid glissando across the black keys and both guitar and piano end the work on C major, the piano with its block chords and the guitar, once again, with harmonics floating above the rest of the sound.

There are so many fantastic melodies and rhythms that describing them in print is, for the most part, useless and counterproductive.  The mysterious and pensive music opening the first movement is set in stark contrast with the laid back dance hidden within the quiet and dreamy outer sections of the first movement. The second movement is full of riotus, happy music with hints of dark tones and gestures that hint not at real darkness so much as a kind of winking, jocular way of talking about dark things as things that are not things to worry about now.

You'll have to do some digging around for audio or video recordings but here's two links to the two movements:


In the last year or so there have been more and more people posting videos of performances of this work on the internet. I have linked to Nick Cutroneo's performance.  The audio is less than ideal but unlike a few performances on the net he plays the quiet and dreamy parts in a way that sounds quiet and dreamy to me.  Some guitarists hammer and scratch their way through the quiet and dreamy segments in a way that gets to me. 

Now I've been working on putting this piece together for years.  It's quite challenging to play but rewards pianist and guitar alike.  You'll never be wanting for showy, virtuosic playing in this beauty!  I happen to be a bit of a theory nerd so what I find compelling about the piece is how the tritone in the harmonies gets developed and resolved. 

In the first movement the D minor and A flat major chords set forth the central conflict, two chords that don't seem to belong next to each other.  How will Tedesco resolve this?  In a more modernist composer there would be no conflict to resolve and one of the cliches of indie/grunge rock that vanguard concert composers were playing with decades before metal existed would just get trundled out in some alternating pattern.  Tedesco dances us through a squad of different key relationships in the first movement and lands us firmly in A major.  The tritone gets resolved toward the fifth, the dominant key.  Along the way the guitar solos through a number of modes that hint at where we are going to land.  For those into these things, notice that the climactic guitar solo (and it's a scary solo for its technical demands) is in A major.  The guitar anticipates the key we'll be landing on at the end but it seems like a strange reverie within the bustle of the middle of the movement. 

Yet by the end of movement one everything has resolved together neatly.  One might even say it wraps up too neatly because it would seem that starting in D minor and ending in A major has covered a lot of ground.  There is, of course, that second movement coming up.

The second movement begins in G major and runs through a similarly wild range of keys and patterns before obliquely recapitulating the dorian mode and getting us into the closing key of C major.  Where Tedesco moves from D to A in the first movement this second movement moves from G to C.  Now G to C can be considered either a rising fourth or a falling fifth depending on how you parse it. In both cases the resolution can be considered a dominant-tonic resolution.  The modulation to a dominant key region from the first movement is here reversed.  Quiet and dreamy block chords surrounding lively, rising pentatonic and modal scale runs in the first movement is countered by a dance in which descending pentatonic scales surround an aggressive, stomping dance in the middle that uses loud block chords within the second movement. The modulation from D minor to A major gives us a tonic to dominant modulation, while the modulation from G major to C major gives us a dominant to tonic resolution.  Castelnuovo-Tedesco cleverly balances both his contrasting thematic materials and his use of harmonic momentum and rhythmic propulsion by creating two movements that are inversions of each other at multiple structural and thematic levels.

Well, that took longer to finish than I thought but that's day one of Chamber Music Week. Stay tuned for other entries dealing with more stuff by Castelnuovo-Tedesco and Ferdinand Rebay.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for writing about the Tedesco Fantasia (and other music), but I wish you would go ahead and take that more informed position on the guitar and piano literature. The Tedesco is a classic--perhaps THE classic--of the repertoire, but is far from the only outstanding work. I would point to Santorsola's Sonata a Duo, Rebay's two sonatas, William Bland's several works for David Starobin, Leo Brouwer's Danzas concertantes, even works by Giuliani and Carulli, as comparable to the Tedesco Fantasia. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

...not to mention the Wuorinen sonata!

Wenatchee the Hatchet said...

Thanks for the comments and the mention of other pieces. Owing to certain ... budgetary constraints in time and disposable income there's a few pieces I haven't been able to hear yet. There's a Bogdanovic duet for piano and guitar I've been hoping to get around to listening to but recent blogging activity has been focusing on formal processes in early 19th century guitar sonatas.

and the blog might be slightly better known for discussing some ... Puget Sound history. Getting back to musical blogging has literally taken years.

Hoping to blog more about Rebay's music in 2017. There have been some great recordings of his work that have come out in the last couple of years.