My first (and only) composition teacher at the University of the Arts, where I received my bachelor’s degree in the ’80s, was Joseph Castaldo, whose music is shockingly unknown today.   If you do a Google search on “Joseph Castaldo composer“, you’ll find an inexplicable number of resulting pages having to do with his birthday (today!), but very little about his music other than a couple of obscure recordings and references by former students such as myself.

Castaldo was an important figure in Philadelphia musical life in the ’60s and ’70s, having served as the head of the Philadelphia Musical Academy and guided that institution’s evolution into what is now the University of the Arts.  I am one of countless composers and musicians who studied with him over the years, most notably Stephen Albert, however his own music is not remembered or recognized as I think it ought to be.

As his student I had the opportunity to get to know several of his works.  At that time he was deeply preoccupied with octatonic scales (simply alternating whole steps and half steps), and had found many inventive ways of using them, ranging from aggressive, chaotic sounds to achingly lyrical melodies.  In lyrical passages, melodies seem to be through-composed and have an almost cantorial or improvised quality with impeccable timing.  Aggressive passages are often built on little three-note ostinati suggested by the octatonic scale.

My favorite work of his is String Quartet 1978, and I’m lucky to still have a recording of it.  At the risk of being accused of gimmickry, this score calls for the string players to double their parts with their own voices, at times screaming and shouting as well, resulting in a haunting and sometimes unsettling experience.  The final moments consist of an exciting extended coda that makes full used of the instruments’ capabilities.

Here are a few excerpts.  Unfortunately I have no idea what quartet is playing here, or when or where this concert took place.

String Quartet 1978
Joseph Castaldo

This is the opening of the piece, where the players shout, imitating the percussive parts they’re playing.

A beautiful lyrical section

Castaldo’s chaotic side

Another lyrical section that further explores the idea of the players singing their parts.  Haunting stuff.

This long excerpt is the coda described above.  It is thoroughly worth the three minutes or so!

Joseph Castaldo passed away in 2000.   On what would be his 81st birthday, I hope that the work of this extraordinary 20th-Century composer will be discovered and revived soon.

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