Everyone knows Felix Mendelssohn’s sparling overture to Shakespeare’s A Midsummer’s Nights’ Dream. It is a splendid piece that deservedly maintains its place in the classical charts: it is currently available on at least 94 CDs. Fewer people will know the equally stunning overture for the same play written by the eminent Italian composer Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco (1895-1965).
It is probably a little-known fact that this composer was fascinated by Shakespeare. So much so, that during the 1920s and 1930s, he set 33 songs from the plays as well as some 35 sonnets. Over and above this, he wrote two Shakespearian operas: The Merchant of Venice (1956) and All’s Well that Ends Well (1955-8) Between 1930 and 1953 Castelnuovo-Tedesco also composed 11 overtures:
- La bisbetica domata (The Taming of the Shrew), Op. 61 (1930)
- La dodicesima notte (Twelfth Night), Op. 73 (1932)
- Il mercante di Venezia (The Merchant of Venice), Op. 76 (1933)
- Giulio Cesare (Julius Caesar), Op. 78 (1934)
- Il racconto d’inverno (The Winter’s Tale), Op. 80 (1935)
- A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Op. 108 (1940)
- King John, Op. 111 (1941)
- Antony and Cleopatra, Op. 134 (1947)
- The Tragedy of Coriolanus, Op. 135 (1947)
- Much Ado about Nothing, Op. 164 (1953)
- As You Like It, Op. 166 (1953)
Three things about Italian composer Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco (1895-1968) that need to be remembered. Firstly, he is nowadays best recalled for his numerous guitar works, of which he wrote more than a hundred. His most popular work in the CD catalogue is the Concerto for Guitar, no. 1 in D major. Secondly, he composed more than 250 film scores for Hollywood. He was a ghost writer with very few on-screen credits. He taught film music, and his pupils included Henry Mancini, John Williams and André Previn. And, thirdly, his musical style owes much to Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel as well as his teacher, the Italian composer, Ildebrando Pizzetti. He has been variously described as an impressionist, a post-impressionist, a classicist, post romantic and part of the 1920s Italian avant-garde.
Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s Shakespearian Overtures are not tone poems: they do not attempt to follow the plot of the plays. They are concert pieces and not ‘incidental music.’ What the composer does, is to create ‘impressions’ of ‘specific aspects of the drama.’ The Naxos CD liner notes explain that the scores include direct quotations from the text, and these are used to indicate the introduction of each musical idea.
Turning to the present work, much interest is crammed into seven minutes of music. I guess that the literary material does not go far beyond ‘A Wood near Athens.’ For most English readers, this forest is really ‘located’ nearer to home in Warwickshire: The Forest of Arden. Here and there, Puck and the Fairies flit to and fro. Fundamentally, from Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s perspective this piece is an evocation of woodland (somewhere in Europe!) with ‘all the live murmur of a summer’s day’ (Matthew Arnold). It is an impressionistic masterpiece. Notice the nod to Mendelssohn’s Overture in the opening bars. And somehow a Spanish mood seems to insinuate itself into the melody.
Finally, David’s Blog (Classics Today.com) sums the matter up well: ‘Thank God Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco's overture to A Midsummer Night's Dream doesn't sound anything like Mendelssohn: it's just a luscious bit of late-Romantic impressionism, and it's as lovely as it is concise.’
In 2010, all eleven overtures were issued by the Naxos label on two CDs (8.572500/1). Andrew Penny conducts the West Australian Symphony Orchestra in recordings made in Perth, Australia during 1994.
Listen to Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s Overture to A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream on YouTube.