(b Rome, 28 May 1841; d Rome, 14 Dec 1914). Italian composer, pianist and conductor. He first played the piano in public at the age of six and soon afterwards began to compose. After the death of his father in 1849 he moved with the family to Trevi, where he continued his musical studies with Natalucci, a pupil of Zingarelli. In 1860 he returned to Rome, where he quickly made his mark as a pianist, studied counterpoint with Giovanni Aldega and in 1866 received the diploma di socio onorario of the Accademia di S Cecilia. Meanwhile, in 1862, he had met Liszt, who at once recognized his talent, seriousness and receptivity to the various types of non-operatic music then neglected in Italy. He became Liszt’s pupil and protégé, and the two remained close friends until the older man’s death. This friendship was decisive for Sgambati’s development, and in return he did much to promote Liszt’s music (along with that of other important foreign composers). In 1866–7 he introduced the Dante Symphony to Italy and conducted the première of the first part of Christus.
In 1869 Liszt took him to Germany, where he met Anton Rubinstein and first encountered the music of Wagner, whom he was to meet in 1876 in Rome. On that occasion Wagner was impressed by Sgambati’s two piano quintets and recommended them to Schott for publication. By then Sgambati had become internationally known as a pianist; he played in England in 1882 and 1891 and in many other countries. In 1881 he was offered a teaching post at the Moscow Conservatory, which he refused. He evidently did not wish to uproot himself from Rome, where he had made lasting and important contributions to the city’s musical life. Notable among these was his founding (in collaboration with Ettore Pinelli) of the Liceo Musicale (later Conservatorio) di S Cecilia, linked to the much older Accademia. The Liceo began informally, as early as 1869, as a free school for poor piano students in Sgambati’s house; in 1877 it was put on an official basis, and he continued to teach there until his death.
Sgambati is of unquestionable historical importance as a leading figure in the late 19th-century resurgence of non-operatic music in Italy. Yet his works have endured far less well than those of his younger contemporary Martucci. He nevertheless had a fluent talent, and a movement such as the First Piano Quintet’s mercurial scherzo, which begins and ends in fast 5/8 time, shows that in his youth he was not without originality. Occasionally later pieces, too, reveal signs of independent thinking, as in the unexpectedly adventurous Prelude in the Suite op.16 (published as op.21), with its piquant, glittering dissonances. Nor was he without Italian characteristics, despite the influence of various foreign composers, from Mendelssohn, Chopin and Schumann to Liszt. Like Martucci’s, his music sometimes has a sunlit radiance reminiscent of Domenico Scarlatti (see, for instance, the Gigue published as op.23 no.6), and at other times there are reminders of Liszt’s consciously ‘Mediterranean’ side – the fifth Nocturne op.24 (op.31), with its languid cantabile melodies and its indolent diatonic dissonances, might almost be called a ‘poor man’s Sonetto di Petrarca’.
Even in compositions such as these, however, the danger of lapsing into facile, easy-going charm, with repetitive rhythms and figurations, is not altogether overcome, and such dangers weigh heavily on many other pieces. Moreover, Sgambati’s larger instrumental works (with the possible exceptions of the early quintets) do not indicate that he needed large abstract musical forms to embody his ideas. The D minor Symphony is more satisfactory than the Piano Concerto precisely because it is lighter and less pretentious. Even the once internationally popular String Quartet in C minor is too rhapsodic, and at times too turgid, to convince as a whole. Nevertheless, for all their shortcomings, these works played an essential part in preparing the ground for more durable Italian instrumental music; and special mention should be made of the Requiem, repeatedly used at Italian royal funerals, whose sober dignity and manifest sincerity can still impress, despite the extreme conservatism of the style.