Castelnuovo-Tedesco: Cipressi (Cypresses), Opus 17

The 1938 racial laws passed by Italy’s fascist government were devastating to Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco (1895-1968) and his family. A descendant of Sephardic Jews, he had enjoyed an energized and successful career as both pianist and composer. After 1938 he emigrated to America, where he found employment in Hollywood. A series of movie scores followed in addition to numerous works for guitar, piano, orchestra, and voice. Among his most intriguing compositions are his Shakespeare-themed overtures as well as an operatic setting of All’s Well that Ends Well. By 1946 he was a United States citizen and taught extensively in Los Angeles, where his students included Henry Mancini, Jerry Goldsmith, John Williams, and André Previn.

Cipressi, as the name implies, is an evocation of cypress trees, in this case at the Villa Forti in Usigliano, where Castelnuovo-Tedesco spent many of his summers during the 1920s. Cipressi is what pianists call a “find,” a mostly unknown but richly textured and immediately appealing piano piece, beautifully written for the instrument, fun to play and just as much fun to hear. Ever so slightly mournful and ever so slightly Spanish-flavored, Cipressi employs a luxuriant harmonic language reminiscent of late Liszt with a soupçon of Debussy as it sends a pair of themes through progressively more elaborate settings.—Scott Foglesong

Scott Foglesong is a Contributing Writer to the San Francisco Symphony program book.