Mario Castelnuovo Tedesco | The well-tempered guitars

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Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco (1895-1968)

Les guitares bien tempérées op. 199. 24 préludes et fugues pour deux guitares (1962)
Matteo Mela & Lorenzo Micheli
2CD Solaria SOL201201 (2012)

Recording: Ivrea, Italy, Aula Magna del Seminario Arcivescovile, May 2007-May 2011
Recording Engineers: Mario Bertodo | Renato Campajola
Digital Editing: Mario Bertodo
Mastering: Renato Campajola
Photos by Arsineh Khachikian
Artwork: Arsineh Khachikian | ARKreative |

CD 1 Preludes & Fugues nos. I-XII
CD 2 Preludes & Fugues nos. XIII-XXIV / Fuga elegiaca

When he signed the last of his twenty-four preludes and fugues on 3 June 1962, probably Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco was unaware that he had completed the longest and most important cycle of work for two guitars ever composed; that “les guitares bien tempérées” (as he had ironically entitled the text) would enjoy uninterrupted and growing success in the decades to come; that also, five years later, precisely a prelude and fugue – apart from the four incomplete books of the “Appunti” – would be his last work for the guitar, the instrument that perhaps he loved and cultivated more than any other for thirty-five years of his life.

“The Well-Tempered Guitars” began to take shape at the beginning of March 1962, when the performances of the French guitar duo formed by Ida Presti and Alexandre Lagoya aroused great enthusiasm in the Californian musical community. The preludes and fugues were the most admirable result of an intense and concentrated period of composition to which the “Sonatina Canonica” Op. 196 (1961) and the “Concerto” Op. 201 (1962) also belong. The speed of the composer in the creation was prodigious: less than three months of disciplined work for more than two hundred pages of score. The first of the four books into which the cycle is subdivided was completed between 8 and 27 March; Castelnuovo-Tedesco worked on the second between 23 and 11 May, after a pause of more than three weeks; the third book bears the dates of 14 and 26 May, and the last, begun on the 22 May, was completed on 3 June 1962.

Similarly to the two books of the Bach model of reference (“The Well-Tempered Clavier”), the twenty-four preludes and fugues of the “guitares bien tempérées” are written in all the major and minor keys. For an instrument that rarely and reluctantly departs from the close context of the usual keys, it was an ambitious challenge, taken up by the composer who in his youth, as an enthusiastic composition student of Ildebrando Pizzetti, had set himself the task of writing three hundred and sixty-five fugues in a year – one a day – with the purpose of perfecting his command of counterpoint. The series of keys moves forward in ascending fifth intervals, stating from G minor and alternating rigorously between preludes and fugues in a minor key and preludes and fugues in a major key: a different and original solution from the “Well-Tempered Clavier” (in which the progression of the keys takes place by ascending semitones) and texts like the 24 Preludes Op. 28 by Chopin or the 24 Preludes and Fugues Op. 87 by Shostakovich, where the major keys – starting from that of C – are certainly organised according to the cycle of ascending fifths, but always coupled with their respective minor key.

The construction of the two pairs of books is perfectly symmetrical, with an inversion between the minor and the major key at the beginning of the third book: the first cycle of twelve preludes and fugues (Cahiers I and II) opens in G minor and closes on a triumphant C major, the second cycle of twelve (Cahiers III and IV) starts from a graceful G major and concludes in C minor, according to the following scheme:

Books I and II: G minor to C major

I. G minor

II. D major

III. A minor

IV. E major

V. B minor

VI. F sharp major

VII. C sharp minor

VIII. A flat major

IX. E flat minor

X. B flat major

XI. F minor

XII. C major


Books III and IV: G major to C minor

XIII. G major

XIV. D minor

XV. A major

XVI. E minor

XVII. B major

XVIII. F sharp minor

XIX. C sharp major

XX. G sharp minor

XXI. E flat major

XXII. B flat minor

XXIII. F major

XXIV. C minor

From the formal point of view, Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s preludes and fugues are diptychs with a light and flexible structure, used from time to time as containers of ideas and melodic-rhythmic gestures, as a vehicle for musical homages, as a starting point for elegant assumptions of style. They echo with heterogeneous musical references (from Beethoven to Smetana, from Gershwin to Pizzetti’s “Rapsodia di settembre”), and refined literary allusions (the homage to Walt Whitman in Prelude XV, with the quotation of “I hear America singing” from “Leaves of Grass”, or the double literary citation “embedded” in Browning’s epigraph, with a “Tempo di Siciliana” which celebrates the Siceliot poet Theocritus in Prelude XXI); and also we find there is room for onomatopoeic games (“le coucou” and “le roisseau” in Fugue XXI), self-citations (allusion to a minute fragment of “Romancero Gitano” in Fugue VI), internal references (in Fugue XVI there is an anticipation of the idea which will be the cornerstone of Prelude XVII).

The preludes are formally free, of varying lengths, sometimes linked to dance tempi and movements (like Prelude X in B flat major, “alla rumba”, and the furlana of Prelude XXIII in F major). They can sometimes be built on a single idea, as in the case of Prelude XXI in E flat major or Prelude XIX in C sharp major, or – as happens more frequently – they can present a more complex internal division, with juxtaposition and interaction of several themes, changes of tempo, cadences (as in Prelude XI in F minor and Prelude XXIV in C minor) and very distant tone modulations (in this connection, listen to Prelude IX in E flat minor).

The fugues can develop a thematic idea already proposed in the prelude (as in V, VII, VIII, XIV, XIX, XX, XXII, XXIII and XXIV), or can be inspired by a completely autonomous and original idea. While some of the subjects, owing to their very incisive rhythmic and melodic characteristics, are immediately impressed on the memory of the listener, others  – perhaps less immediate – lend themselves to more abstract and audacious musical constructions, in particular those in which the chromatic progress favours a greater ambiguity of tone and a continual play of modulations (as for example Fugue VI in F sharp major, Fugue IX in E flat minor and Fugue XI in F minor). There is then the relatively large group of fugues constructed on a dance movement: gigue (Fugue II in D major), bourrée (Fugue IV in E major and Fugue XVII in B major), minuet (Fugue XIII in G major) and gavotte (Fugue XV in A major). In his inventions Castelnuovo-Tedesco demonstrates “ancient” erudition and rigour, while also succeeding in dressing his counterpoints with ever-modern musical content.

On 24 April 1967 Ida Presti unexpectedly passed away, at the age of only 43 years and at the peak of an extraordinary artistic career. Castelnuovo-Tedesco, profoundly moved by the news, took up his pen to write one last piece, again a piece for two guitars, again a prelude and fugue: and so “Fuga Elegiaca – to the Memory of Ida Presti” was born. The key chosen was G minor, like in the opening piece of the “guitares bien tempérées”: the cycle of the fifths had thus returned to its starting point. The composer would die unexpectedly less than a year afterwards, in Los Angeles, on 17 March 1968.

Lorenzo Micheli




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