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Why Sgambati failed...

img  Tobias

Giovanni Sgambati's life is neither a riddle nor a myth, it is well documented and its lines cross those of many famous composers. And yet his name has never entered the ranks of those he befriended (such as Lizt and Wagner, who were both dear friends and benefactors), nor those he admired (Beethoven and Chopin). A brilliant article and a wonderful CD Box by ARTS Music help to shed a little light on Sgambati's fate.

Even though it has to be said right at the beginning: Sgambati was no tragic figure. Born as son to a succesful lawyer and the daughter of renowned sculptor Joseph Gott, he was never in dire straits and his parents were always in the position to foster his nascent talents at an early age. For the young Giovanni quickly took a liking to playing the piano as well as singing and started composing at the age of seven (enter childhood prodigy comment here, please). After his studies, he settled in Rome and started a career as a Pianist, which was to bring him fame wherever he played and the admiration of the two most charismatic musical figures of his time, Liszt and Wagner. Both made his acquantaince at one of his concerts and both were so impressed by this man's playing as well as his pieces that they immediately rushed to assist him in any way they could: Liszt worked together closely with Sgambati when it came to teaching and allowed him to conduct his Dante Symphony (a great success). Wagner meanwhile was fascinated by the Italian's Quintets and arranged for his works to be published by Schott - which has saved these gems for later generations.

So why was Sgambati never fully recognised? Some of the reasons can be found in a more than just informative article on "Grieg Forum", an invaluable source of timeless material and current news. First of all, Giovanni never strayed to far from his home and when he did, he avoided staying somewhere else for too long. This aversion to long concert tours prevented his fame from spreading. It also, according to Pietro Spada, "gave him a hint of provinvial narrowness". Then there was the issue of his concentration on instrumental music. Sgambati had a knack for the German symphonic tradition and premiered many works in Italy (such as Beethoven's seventh Symphony). This tragically conflicted with the image of the Italian composer as an operatic genius (as you see, these kind of marketing problems are not singular to our times). Maybe, our friend was a little to stubborn here: He actually liked Opera and was asked by Wagner many times to write one, but he stuck to his principles (or maybe he simply assumed he was no good at writing one - which we doubt).

All of this matters, but when listening to his collected Piano pieces, which are now assembled in full by Pietro Spada and released by ARTS, one comes to some other noteworthy conclusions as well. For Sgambati starts off at similar points of departure as his collegues, but arrives at entirely different destinations. His melodies are not as urgent as Chopin's, his harmonic progressions not as wonderous as Beethoven's and his pieces lack the fiery passion of Liszt or the visionary avantgarde of Wagner. What he does present, though, is a totally personal cosmos of a lovely drifting and at times dramatically lonesome nature. The beauty of Sgambati's music is hard to explain, eschewing rational explanation. If you listen to some of his repertoire's highlights, such as the tranquil and graceful "Campane a festa" (on disc 1 one of this 4CD set) or the otherwordly "Berceuse Reverie" (which Massenet would later rearrange for orchestra), you will find yourself deeply moved yet lost for words. It is the quiet pieces that leave the strongest impression and some of them are so short that they are over before you've even noticed. Pietro Spada, who must have found it an honour and felt a deep satisfaction to be able to record the entire piano oeuvre of his beloved compatriot, doesn't need to get all too dreamy in his interpretation - the music does most of the work itself. The longer pieces are more complex and demanding, but they always rise from a troubled middle part to end in harmony. Sgambati's pieces offer no cheap escapism, but they are not superficiously materialistic either - this is an almost modern form of spirituality and rewards those who are willing to wait for a miracle to happen.

Sgambati went on to found the Santa Cecilia conservatory, where he tought young talents until his death. His compositions experienced a short period of renewed interest between the two World Wars, but then again faded into oblivion. Maybe that's not a bad starting point for an individual and current appreciation of his work. Sometimes it takes a whole century to do away with expectations and prejudice and allow a piece of art to be seen as it truly is. Spada puts it well at the end of his booklet text: "When we look at Sgambati today, it seems like a return to a milestone within Italy's great musical history, the meaning of which in particular is also a re-discovery of symphonic works of a European dimension".

Homepage: ARTS Music
Source: Giovanni Sgambati at Griegforum

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