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GIOVANNI SGAMBATI  

(1841 - 1914)

Giovanni Sgambati (1841–1914) was, along with Giuseppe Martucci, one of the prime movers behind the rebirth of Italian instrumental music, a campaign aimed at reducing the pre-eminence of opera and raising audiences’ awareness of how much had been and was still being produced in the way of orchestral and chamber music in the latter half of the nineteenth century.

Italian audiences did not hear Beethoven’s Third Symphony until 1867, and it was Giovanni Sgambati who conducted that première, as he did the first Italian performances of Beethoven’s Seventh (in 1870) and of such significant contemporary works as Liszt’s Dante Symphony and Christus oratorio. Born in Rome, a talented pianist and composer, Sgambati had come into contact with musicians from elsewhere in Europe early on in his career. His friend and teacher Franz Liszt enabled him to move to Germany, where the world of instrumental music appeared to be following completely different rules, with a wealth of possibilities for composition and performance. Orchestras there were “well-oiled machines” boasting remarkable forces and sonic potential, and this clearly influenced the work of those composers who saw the symphony as the vehicle for the highest expression of poetic and aesthetic truth. Sgambati was certainly able to develop as a composer in this environment, and tried to steer Italian music towards the formal rigour of the German school, taking Brahms as his benchmark. He also encountered the music of Wagner while he was in Germany, and Wagner it was who later arranged the publication in Mainz of Sgambati’s first chamber works (the Piano Quintets in F minor, Op 4 and B flat major, Op 5), introducing him to the publisher Schott with these words: “a composer and prodigiously gifted pianist, a true, great and original talent whom I should like to present to the wider musical world […] by means of these works which I expect to be very successful”.

A tireless supporter and organiser of cultural activities, Sgambati co-founded, along with violinist Ettore Pinelli, the Liceo Musicale di Santa Cecilia and the Società Orchestrale Romana, an association established to promote instrumental music. His hard work found favour with Queen Margherita of Savoy, herself a keen and talented amateur musician. It is no coincidence that in 1874 she became patron of the newly founded Società and began to support its activities, with the result that in March 1881 a fortunate few were able to attend the first orchestral concert given in the “Blue Room” of the Quirinale Palace in Rome, as Sgambati conducted Beethoven’s Coriolan Overture and his own Symphony in D major.

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