Giovanni Sgambati ‘The Raphael of the Piano’ (1841 - 1914)
Similarities and influences with Liszt:
In 1871, Giovanni Sgambati wrote of his relationship with Franz Liszt ‘we became very close.’ So, as Liszt had many talented pupils, I was interested to look more closely at their relationship and to explore the reasons why, of all his students, Sgambati should have been singled out as a favourite.
They met for the first time in Rome in 1862, when Sgambati [1841 - 1914] was twenty one years old and Liszt was more than twice his age. But both men had previously experienced similar situations in their lives, enough to suggest that they would have a shared insight into each other’s character. Not disregarding the similarity of both men being highly attractive to women, first and foremost they were brought together by being exceptionally gifted pianists, child prodigies who made their debut at a young age. Sgambati was seven years old when, in the home of Luciano Bonaparte, he delivered a short piano performance that charmed Rome Society. Liszt might not have not have started learning piano until he was seven, but he was sufficiently skilled in a short space of time to make a triumphant debut in Vienna at the age of eleven.
Importantly, both men were very young when their father died. Liszt, aged fifteen, was left bereft by the death of Adam who had been so highly instrumental in the development of his son’s career. Sgambati was only eight when his father died, although the main contribution by his father [a lawyer by profession] was to alter his son’s date of birth, putting it back two years to 1843, so that his young Giovanni appeared to be even more of a child prodigy! By all accounts, Adam Liszt had only been cheeky enough to remove one year from his son’s age for advertising purposes!
Both Liszt and Sgambati had to move home as a consequence of their father’s death, all be it to different effect: Liszt was taken by his mother to the more cosmopolitan atmosphere of Paris, where he continued his career. Conversely, and on account of his mother’s remarriage, Sgambati went one hundred miles north of his birthplace, Rome, to the provincial town of Trevi. Fortuitously he was able to continue his piano studies there with another outstanding teacher Tiberio Natalucci, who had returned to Trevi after studying in Naples with Zingarelli [teacher of Bellini and Donizetti]. Liszt’s mother did not remarry.
It is another small but curious fact that, for both men, their mother was called Anna.
Of greater significance is a shared musical heritage, since both Liszt and Sgambati could trace it back to Clementi through their teachers: Liszt was educated on a diet of Beethoven and Clementi by his teacher Czerny, whilst also having the privileged knowledge that Clementi was in the audience at his London Debut in 1824. Sgambati’s first teacher in Rome, Amerigo Barberi, the author of a book on ‘New Harmony’ was a pupil of Clementi, although the young boy’s lessons with him were cut short when Sgambati was uprooted to Trevi.
Liszt and Sgambati returned to Rome at a similar time, and both during a period of personal sadness: Sgambati’s returned to Rome occurred in 1860, and we can make the reasonable assumption that it was connected to the death of his English grandfather, Joseph Gott, who died early in that year. Gott was a famous sculptor who worked in the centre of the city, in the via Babuino [n.b take note of this address for later in the paragraph]. Liszt, who was still mourning the death of his son, Daniel, returned to Rome one year later than Sgambati, in 1861, for the purpose of his never-to-be marriage with Carolyne von Sayn-Wittgenstein. And here is another small but curious fact: Carolyne took an apartment in the via Babuino [not the same number as Joseph Gott] after previously living at 93, Piazza di Spagna, which was the place where Sgambati chose to live for the final thirty years of his life.
For the next twenty years, their lives moved very much in tandem, and we can observe how their friendship accrued benefits and influences for both men.
Liszt liked being in Rome ‘my life here is more peaceful and harmonious and better organised than in Germany’ [Walker p.36] but he was soon complaining that Rome was devoid of the amount of music that he was used to hearing. Step in Sgambati! The young man had started giving recitals, which the maestro found very much to his taste. Liszt later described the younger man’s concerts as being ‘all that is musically interesting as regards Rome’. Putting this statement into context, we should note that, although Liszt may have termed Sgambati’s programmes as ‘interesting’, others might well have termed them ‘provocative’. The recitals by this handsome young man in his twenties caused quite a stir, not only on account of his sensational piano technique, but also because of his choice of programme. As Sgambati was a pianist, the nature of the repertoire available for his instrument together with the heritage handed down to him by his English mother and by his teachers, naturally drew him to perform the music of Domenico Scarlatti and the works of the great German composers. But, on account of a ‘little’ matter of the War of Independence, Nationalist sentiment was running high in Italy at that time, with the result that many people in Rome refused to listen to German, Austrian or French music. Sgambati is credited with having introduced the works of Beethoven, Chopin and Schumann to Italian audiences, and seems to have done it so successfully that, within just a few years Liszt was able to write of Sgambati that he is the ‘leading light’ of instrumental music in Rome and ‘very much in fashion this winter.’
Sgambati was naturally thrilled to have a teacher of Liszt’s calibre readily available and so, with lovely symmetry we find that, whilst Sgambati made Rome a better place for Liszt, the old maestro made the city a better place for the young pianist. For the previous couple of years, Sgambati had been taking lessons from the eminent Giovanni Aldega in Rome but, prompted by the death of the old man, and also feeling that he needed more tuition, Sgambati was on the point of packing his bags to study in Germany, when, with a stroke of luck, Liszt turned up on his doorstep.
They met at a chamber concert in which Sgambati was playing a Septet by Hummel. Liszt was impressed by the young man and took him on as a pupil. Initially Sgambati went to Liszt’s accommodation for lessons, and no doubt further added to the good impression already made, when he expressed a wish to play Liszt’s own piano concerto in A major. Sgambati had gained the teacher of his dreams, but Liszt found a convenient place to teach and from 1863, gave his piano classes at Sgambati’s home twice per week. There the two men also relaxed together, frequently playing piano duets. There exists an account of them performing Liszt’s Mazeppa on two pianos as a post dinner entertainment.
Liszt wrote “I have found a very talented young pianist who makes a first rate partner in duets and who, for example, plays the Dante Symphony boldly and correctly. I should like to go through all my symphonic poems with him”. Their shared musical heritage clearly gave them a shared view on interpretation and so we may presume that ‘boldly and correctly’ is the reason why in 1866, Liszt entrusted the conducting of his Dante Symphony to the 25 year old Sgambati at the orchestral concert for the opening of the Dante Sala in Rome. Liszt marked the occasion by presenting Sgambati with a silver-handled baton. In fact, Sgambati was to conduct the work several times more and, encouraged by Liszt, also conducted the first performance in Italy of Beethoven’s symphonies.
In addition, Liszt backed Sgambati’s efforts at composition and, a year later in 1867, we find both men following the spirit of the times, composing patriotic works - Liszt produced The Hungarian Coronation Mass whilst Sgambati composed his fiery Cola di Rienzi. Cola (short for Nicola) was a popular leader in the middle ages who lead an uprising inspired by his dream of returning Rome to her ancient glory, a subject that certainly would have gone down well with audiences in Rome at that time. But this leads to a most important point, the two works are not alike. Liszt’s influence did not go so far as to determine Sgambati’s style of composition. The young Italian had a voice that was his own, something which I shall deal with later on.
However, the influence of Liszt on Sgambati’s piano technique, artistic style and attitude to teaching was very strong.
Comparisons of pianistic style:
There were two schools of piano playing in Rome at that time – one dominated by Benjamin Cesi, required a rigid finger style and focused on neatness and elegance. The other school, dominated by Franz Liszt, concentrated on the artistic outcome and treated the piano as the instrumental synthesis of the orchestra. Cecilia Cleveland [Appletons Journal 1873] recollected the piano playing of Liszt, ‘I still thought his style the quietest I had ever known in so great a pianist; but this evening I could not but own that, when truly inspired, Liszt was of a very different being from the Liszt of every day. Never did I see a face change with the music as his did - now pale, with firmly compressed lips; now glowing, as his hands dashed and leaped from bass to high treble, seeming fairly to tear out the massive chords and wonderful cadenzas…but more wonderful to me than the playing, was that rapt face - so weird, often almost grotesque in expression, as the iron-grey hair tossed wildly, and the Titanic arms still hurled thunder-bolts rather than chords’.
Naturally, Sgambati belonged to the Liszt school of which he became the leading exponent. Contemporary accounts suggest the similarity of style with that of his teacher:
From Tryphosa Bates Bachelor: ‘as he sits at the piano his eyes take on a dreamy expression and, without affectation or effort, his fingers fly across the keys, showing a rare technique. Once at the piano he is quite lost to the world, thinking only of the interpretation.’
And this from Bettina Walker: ‘His lovely elastic touch, the weight and yet the softness of his wrist-staccato, the swing and go of his rhythmic beat, the colouring rich and warm, and yet most exquisitely delicate, and over all the atmosphere of grace, the charm and the repose which perfect mastery alone can give…..In the sudden fortissimi so characteristic of the school, his tone was always rich and full, never wooden or shrill; while his pianissimi were so subtle and delicate, and the nuances, gave a quite inimitable sweetness. His playing of Schumann was also a speciality; and I remember vividly his delicious wrist-played staccato, from the first to the last bar in the left hand of the last variation but two of the Etudes Symphoniques…..Sgambati’s playing of Beethoven's E Flat Concerto was one of the finest I have ever heard; such beautiful tone, such perfect taste, such broad simple phrasing, such reserve of force ; never have I heard any artist sink so poetically from forte to piano in the two octave pages of the first movement’.
And I enjoy this next recollection from her. It is a lovely example both of Sgambati’s character and of how attitudes to what is acceptable in the classroom have changed: ‘I have heard him accompany some very promising young pianist in such pieces as the Mendelssohn Concertos, when the pupil has had the good instrument and Sgambati a very inferior one; and yet, with Sgambati evidently out of practice, and taking no trouble, as he sat there with a cigar between his lips, looking all nonchalance and easy insouciance, one felt what he was, just as one feels that the sun is there behind the clouds.’
If you would like to make a personal judgement of Sgambati’s playing, it is possible to hear a performance by Sgambati on YouTube.
In the matter of fees we can see influence handed down from one teacher to the next: Liszt had received his lessons free from Czerny and he, in his turn, performed and gave lessons free. Then in the same year that Liszt was awarded a teaching position in Weimar, in 1869, Sgambati established a free piano class for poor students in Rome, which filled up so quickly that he had to take on two other teachers to help. This resulted in the foundation of the Liceo di Santa Cecilia, a conservatoire in Rome that is still in operation today. Sgambati’s diploma, required the piano student to:-
1. prepare up to metronomic time, and keep in practice the twenty-four preludes and fugues in the first book of Bach's Well tempered Clavier.
2. play twenty-four studies from the Gradus ad Parnassum.
3. play a modern piece by heart.
4.read a short manuscript at sight.
5.answer, viva voce, questions on general principles.
The concert pianist Maria Carreras: described Sgambati as “…a most artistic and painstaking teacher… whilst Bettina Walker, another student of Sgambati, reveals his demanding qualities. ‘several of his pupils in the academy had complained to me that, after having done their best, the only praise he ever gave them—and that very rarely—was, "Non ce male" (“ Not bad "). " If he would but praise us a little more," they said, " we should get on ever so much better." On being told of this, Sgambati’s wife justified her husband by explaining that it was how he had achieved mastery of the instrument, ‘at fifteen he was already a charming player, and at twenty, when he had obtained recognition, and was giving concerts, and was known to be a special favourite and highly valued pupil of Liszt, how he used to work! I have known him to begin practising some passage, which he thought wanted improvement, and there he would sit, from the closing in of a winter afternoon until near midnight, patient, absorbed, and untiring; and he would not have finished off even then, if I had not begged him to bethink himself that the other lodgers in the Palazzo might complain if he went on any longer.’
This demonstrates an area of the two mens’ lives that had a marked difference. Liszt was never able to achieve a happy marriage, two of his children died and he fell out with the third. Sgambati married the beautiful, rich Constanza Mele, in 1869, and with her raised a son, Oreste, who became successful in the world of medicine.
Two decades previously, Liszt’s first experience of working in Italy had not been a happy one. He also suffered from a general lack of confidence in his ability as a composer. This would have made him grateful for Sgambati’s friendship, musical understanding, championship of his works, and connections in Italian Society. Richard Strauss had written of Liszt being misunderstood in Germany, and Sgambati attributed those problems to being the result of not having composed an opera together with being known chiefly as a wiz-kid pianist. But Sgambati also suffered from a misunderstanding of his music and he could have ascribed these same issues to himself, together with the matter of his compositional style. Previously I referred to the fact that his style is not derivative, now I will develop this theme. Sgambati’s life falls precisely midway between those of the two great Italian operatic geniuses, Verdi and Puccini and, of course, it was impossible for him not to be influenced by the music of his homeland. Thus Sgambati’s style is inspired by two entirely opposite sources: 1.) the melodic heritage of Verdi and his Italian homeland. 2.) the German Classical heritage of his teachers and his English ancestry. A mix that produces a sort of Brahms-Verdi hybrid. It presents a challenge for any interpreter of Sgambati’s music, to find that perfect balance between melodic romanticism and dramatic construction. Too much of either and the effect is ruined. There are several different recordings of the complete works for piano, and you may well be struck by the variety of interpretations you hear. In my opinion, the performances by Francesco Caramiello come closest to finding the necessary balance. Many of the works by Sgambati were composed for himself to play: a piano concerto, solo piano pieces and chamber music for his Piano Quintet which received a Royal appointment to perform regularly in the Quirinale Palace for Queen Margherita [she of pizza fame]. His piano pieces are characterised by an apparent simplicity, that is, however, frequently misleading since most of his works need an excellent technique. Flute players wishing to explore his piano works, may wish to try my arrangement of Nocturne He also composed songs of which several were written for his wife, and orchestral pieces. One of his most impressive works is the choral work Requiem and the earlier Libera Mewhich became absorbed into it.
Unfortunately there have been too few performances of the orchestral works for an objective view to be made of them, leaving critics divided in their opinions:
Philip Goepp included Sgambati’s First symphony in his book “ Great Works of Music”, describing the Andante slow movement, as “pure lyric, somewhat new in design and feeling, with an interesting contrast of opposite kinds of slower melody”.
However, the ultra conservative Eduard Hanslik [whom Wagner lampooned so viciously as Beckmesser in his opera ‘Die Meistersinger’] was not at all impressed by the symphony, and, clearly feeling it unnecessary to mince his words in any way, was especially scathing about the movement that Goepp so enjoyed. He wrote, “We have witnessed a type of Musical Cookery Demonstration, in which the composer chucked in every possible ingredient he could find in a random order. It seemed that his idea of creating a sophisticated dish, was to take dry ingredients and mix them with strange sauces and weird spices in an effort to make it tasty…The highly unsymphonic opening of the first movement, a piccolo whistle after a mysterious chromatic bass motif of 3 notes, filled me with a sense of foreboding which was born out partly in the First movement and entirely in the Second with its dreary Andante in G minor. In that movement the Italian put on a melancholy northern guise, and in the style of Gade or Grieg, conjured up the mists of Ossian…Two harps insistently trundled romantically throughout the movement…the instrumentation is as Liszt and Wagner AND it has 2 harps, 3 trombones and a tuba in the middle movement!’
As Hanslick was the chief critic in Austria at that time, his words carried a lot of weight. Falling foul of the opinion of such an influential critic, did not benefit Sgambati.
Prior to 2001, I had never heard of Sgambati, and my interest in his work came about as a result of reading through a very old edition of the Groves Dictionary. There I read enthusiastic comments about the composer and, intriguingly, of the existence of an unpublished second symphony, so I set out for Rome to research it and, as a result, ultimately published it.
The Symphony no.2:
Giovanni Sgambati was 42 years old when he composed his Second Symphony, almost immediately after the completion of his first. No doubt he had been encouraged by the success of the first symphony, which received acclaimed performances in London and elsewhere in Europe and for which he was awarded a medal by King Umberto. Conversely however, Sgambati was never to hear his second symphony in full, because its first complete performance took place only after his death, at the Memorial Service in January 1915. Then the symphony lay forgotten for nearly 100 years before it was played again, as my edition, in February 2014.
Its exact date of composition is unknown, but it seems that Sgambati was writing his second symphony around the time that Liszt was composing ‘La lugubre gondola’ and ‘Am Grabe Richard Wagners’. At any rate, Sgambati had finished writing it before April 1884 as there is a letter from George Groves expressing his great pleasure that Sgambati had 'finished another symphony - another sign that your great country is waking up and going to take her old place in music.' But, for some unknown reason it was a nearly a year before the work received any sort of premiere, and that was only a partial performance, probably played by the composer on the piano with a trumpet and a few other instruments, at the Palazzo Caffarelli in Rome in March 1885. Schott Söhne (publishers of Sgambati's works from 1875, after Wagner recommended him to them) seemed enthusiastic to publish it, writing later that year in November 1885, to say that a conductor had been engaged for a run-through of the symphony. But nothing seems to have come of this and there is no record of any other performance taking place for a further two years. Finally in June 1887, Sgambati conducted part of the work in Germany, at the Tonskünstler-Versammlung in Cologne. However, the path to the performance was not a smooth one, and there is a nice [or horrific, depending on your point of view] history of events leading up to the occasion:
The original letter of invitation from the organiser, Carl Riedel, stated specifically that there would be time in the programme only for one or two movements of the symphony to be played. However, following further correspondence, Sgambati persuaded him to allow three movements. For this, plus an appearance as a pianist in the festival, Sgambati was to be paid 300 Marks.
So, given Sgambati’s specific request that more, rather than less of the symphony should be played, together with the fact that three years had elapsed since its composition, it might be supposed that there should have been plenty of time to prepare for the performance. But not. Maybe it was due to a lack of good copyists for, as Franz Liszt had observed, the only good copyist in Rome ‘divided his time between the pub and the gaol’. Or possibly it was the result of Sgambati's easy going and laid-back personality. At any rate, the correspondence from the organisers in Cologne demonstrates their growing concern and desperation at the delay in receiving the orchestral material:
The performance was due to take place in June 1887, so on April 9th, [concert minus three months], Carl Riedel wrote to Sgambati, with a request for the score and orchestral parts to be sent. But Riedel seems not to have received anything in return for, six weeks later on May 31st, [concert minus six weeks], he wrote again, saying rather tactfully, that the conductor would be pleased to see the score soon and could he, at the very least, have the harp parts forthwith, as the two harpists would require plenty of time to practise. Apparently this time Sgambati complied with part of the request and sent the harp parts. But nothing else. So, two weeks later, [concert minus two weeks], yet another letter arrived for Sgambat, this time from the conductor, personally thanking him for the harp parts, but begging him to send the score and orchestral parts as soon as is possible, so that the orchestra could play it in the rehearsal the following week! My heart goes out to that conductor! There is no indication either of why it took Sgambati so long to send the music or of when the unfortunate conductor, Wüllner, finally received it. But, whatever the reason, it is fairly safe to assume that the symphony’s performance must have been adversely effected by the delay, since the conductor did not have time to study the score, the work opens with the difficult key signature of six flats, the hand written orchestra parts contained many mistakes including wrong transpositions in the Cor Anglais part and, furthermore, the symphony was only one item in a long programme of works totalling four hours of music. Perhaps this was the cause of a second violinist scribbling ‘Finished - Deo Gratias’ at the end of his copy!
Despite all this, the performance received good reviews. The composer, Busoni, described the work as being 'the greatest success of the evening, and the Cologne Daily newspaper reported on its 'enchanting melodies' and the great applause which 'called back the composer several times and demonstrated the public’s enthusiasm for this beautiful composition.'
But the publishers’ enthusiasm cooled and, two months after the Cologne performance, Schott Söhne sent a letter to Sgambati outlining their reasons for not publishing the symphony, citing ‘public taste’ as the main cause. Plans for a further performance in Dresden in November that year, were dropped in favour of his new orchestral piece Sinfonia Epitalamio. The Full Score was lost and the symphony remained unpublished,
I made my first trip to see the manuscripts in 2003. The hand written orchestral parts had been retained by the composer's family, before being sold to the Casanatense library in Rome in 1994. Impressed with what I found, I set about the painstaking task of reconstructing a new full score. It required several trips to Rome over the course of the next three years, as I saved up enough money between each visit to make the next. I also made a virtual performance of the symphony. The software then available was very unsophisticated, but it was a most special moment when I heard the first notes emerge, and realised that I was probably the only person alive to have heard the work. A few years later, I created an improved second edition of the score and published the orchestral parts with a few revisions, of which I believe the composer would have approved. Sgambati clearly composed through his piano playing fingers - hence the tricky key signature - and there were passages which are fine when played on a piano, but not good when layed out in a similar way for orchestra. For example, if you are playing a series of seventh chords on the piano with six fingers, it doesn’t matter if two of them are moving in parallel seconds. But it is a very different matter to ask an oboist and his neighbour, the Cor Anglais player, to play a tone apart for eight bars! They won’t be happy! But Sgambati had done precisely that, so I deemed that those bars had to be rewritten of necessity. I’ve spent a lot of time playing in orchestras and I knew what would happen, if I did not!
Finally a new world premiere of the symphony took place in February 2014 with the Rome Symphony Orchestra conducted by Francesco La Veccia. Since then the symphony has seen a surge of interest, and most recently the Württembergische Philharmonie recorded the work which is due for release by the CPO label in 2017.
Sgambati’s second symphony is constructed in the sonata form tradition, but is essentially monothematic featuring the interval of a minor 3rd as the principal idea. The harmonic language is tonal but richly coloured by chromaticism and dissonance. The symphony is described as being in E flat minor but, although the work opens in that key, most of the music, including the conclusion of the first and last movements, [and I’m sure the string players are grateful for this] is in E flat major.
The first movement opens with a slow moving Andante Sostenuto that leads effortlessly into the Agitato first movement proper with the minor 3rd motif undergoing many transformations.
The second movement Scherzo & Trio seems to parody folk music as major and minor thirds vie for supremacy, with a contrasting middle section sung by horns and trumpets accompanied by two harps. n.b> I have transcribed this movement for flute orchestra (flute choir) and given it the title Scalina Spagna.
The third movement is a gentle cavatina of rich, mellow sonorities, with the principle melody played by Cor Anglais against a background of ‘twinkling’ flutes and drifting chromatic scales with poignant suspensions.
The fourth movement is full of light-hearted energy. There is a nod towards Liszt’s fantasy style of development and a brief section seems to represent a subconscious tribute to a similar passage in the second movement of the Dante symphony.
After the death of Liszt:
It was a friendship of mutual benefit, Liszt helped to promote Sgambati and made him known to the wider musical world, particularly in 1869, when he took him to Germany, introducing him to Rubinstein, SaintSaens and others. In exchange, Liszt was able to promote his own instrumental works in Italy, and Sgambati introduced him into Italian Society. Their friendship and mutual respect brought pleasure to them both. Liszt saw a lot of his own self in the younger man and was able even to help him by his death, as the Institut de France appointed Sgambati as its foreign member of in Liszt’s place. Sgambati paid his respects the following year, when he conducted Liszt’s own Requiem at the funeral of Carolyne von Sayn-Wittgenstein.
Sgambati outlived Liszt by eighteen years, during which time his reputation continued to grow. His archive of letters and photos show visits from musicians all across the globe, including Wagner, Grieg and Sir Edward and Lady Elgar in 1907. He undertook a few recital tours including twice to England, where he conducted his works at the Crystal Palace and performed to Queen Victoria at Windsor Castle, but he always preferred to stay in Rome.
But I will leave the last words to Liszt:
‘I have gained a thorough affection for Sgambati and the remarkable development of his talent ….. He plays Bach, Beethoven, Chopin, Schumann, and my most troublesome things, with perfect independence and in a masterly style. His artistic tendencies and sympathies are altogether ‘new German’.
I am indebted to the work of Alan Walker for information contained in his wonderful books about Liszt