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ClassicsOnline Home » SGAMBATI, G.: Symphony No. 1 / Cola di Rienzo (Rome Symphony, La Vecchia)
Giovanni Sgambati was one of the most important figures in the Renaissance of Italian instrumental music that began in the latter half of the nineteenth century. Wagner arranged the publication of his first chamber works, calling him ‘a true, great and original talent’. Sgambati’s blending of Italianate lyricism and German rigour led to large-scale works of real historical significance. His overture Cola di Rienzo exemplifies his richness of characterisation while the First Symphony is a major statement of breadth and intensity, admired by Grieg and Saint-Saëns, and often conducted by Toscanini.
By Zan Furtwangler
By David Hurwitz
Giovanni Sgambati (1841–1914)
Cola di Rienzo – Overture • Symphony No 1 in D major, Op 16
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.
After the death of Paganini—the last nineteenth-century Italian musician capable of competing at a Europe-wide level—the great opera composers of the early 1800s had tried to prove themselves worthy continuers of the Italian instrumental tradition that had so dominated musical life in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, but failed to produce any masterpieces. Composers such as Mayr, Rossini, Mercadante, Pacini, Donizetti and Bellini wrote only a small number of orchestral and chamber works at a time when the instrumental music of Beethoven and Schubert was gaining increasing renown. A worrying lack of musical culture seemed to have pervaded the “land of opera”, denying composers the chance to compare their work with what was being produced beyond the Alps. There were few concert societies, especially in comparison with France, Britain and Germany, which meant that instrumental works had little chance of being promoted or even heard outside the salons of the aristocracy and haute bourgeoisie. For the most part, people knew the symphonic repertoire only through adaptations: reductions for string quartet or transcriptions for piano duet/four hands.
Italian audiences did not hear Beethoven’s Third Symphony until 1867, and it was Giovanni Sgambati who conducted that premiere, 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.
Despite Wagner’s exhortations that he should create a music drama from the play Nerone by Pietro Cossa (1830–81), Sgambati apparently never composed an opera. As well as piano music (including a number of nocturnes, and collections entitled Fogli volanti, Mélodies poétiques and Pièces lyriques) he wrote two symphonies, various chamber works, a Requiem Mass and a Te Deum, all in the spirit of the great German tradition, but with clear Italian influences in terms of melody and timbre.
The Romantic symphonism of Liszt, Schumann and Wagner is discernible in his earliest orchestral work, the Overture for the public reading for Cossa’s dramatic poem Cola di Rienzo, which he wrote in 1866. Wagner had earlier been inspired by the same historical figure, basing his opera Rienzi, der Letze der Tribunen (1837–40) on the “last of the Roman Tribunes” and his failed attempt in the mid-1300s to reinstate a republic on the model of Ancient Rome in a city by then riven by conflicts between the papacy and the barons.
Sgambati’s Overture was lost for many years: it was never published and there is no record of its having been performed at the time. A copy of the score was discovered by chance in Rome’s Biblioteca Casanatense and it was first recorded in 2001. It is a lengthy piece, made up of a series of heterogeneous sections in which brief motivic cells are presented and then developed. The first section is characterised by a short, static melodic phrase in the strings, over which first the brass and then the woodwind enter, the former with little Lisztian fragments, the latter with short interventions in triplets that lengthen and are taken up by the strings. The melodic line and solemn pace of the introductory episode (Andante sostenuto) are echoed several times within the work, almost as if to underline, anticipate and characterise particular moments within the drama itself. Despite the varied nature of all the different episodes, it is possible to single out two macro-sections: the first is made up of a succession of different motivic cells, above which the melodic lines of first the strings and then the wind are developed and allowed to dominate; the second, introduced by the harp, has a more homogeneous structure and an imposing, regal tone. The Overture ends with a harmonically enriched recapitulation of the opening Andante.
Sgambati achieved his first major successes in orchestral music with his later works, notably the Piano Concerto in G minor, Op 15 in Schott's numbering, composed between 1878 and 1879, and the Symphony No1 in D major , originally Op 11, but published by Schott as Op 16, written between 1880 and 1881 and performed, as stated in its frontispiece, on 28 March 1881 at the Quirinale, in the presence of Queen Margherita.
The First Symphony’s unusual blend of Italian melodic style and German orchestral tradition met with immediate critical approval, so much so that it became part of the repertoire of conductors such as Martucci, who presented it at Bologna’s Teatro Comunale in 1888, and Toscanini, who conducted it at the Teatro alla Scala in 1899; it also received favourable reviews from Grieg and Saint-Saëns (the latter dubbing it “très intéressante et très originale”).
It is cast in five movements: Allegro vivace, non troppo – Andante mesto – Scherzo (Presto) – Serenata (Andante) – Finale. Allegro con fuoco. Although the first of these is in sonata form, it is difficult to single out its main themes; as in the Cola di Rienzo Overture, various different motivic cells are used here and are continually reworked and developed across the different sections of the orchestra. An introductory section presents three phrases which are varied and taken up again throughout. The first of these is a descending chromatic motif for the clarinets and violas, above double-stopping in the violins; the second is made up of D major arpeggio fragments in the flutes and oboes; and the third, finally, is a broader melodic-rhythmic motif played by the bassoons, together with cellos and double basses. After this first section, the music becomes more insistent in nature, leaving room for the introduction of a second, cantabile idea above murmuring cellos. There is no development as such—the various elements are reused and juxtaposed among the different instruments and varied both melodically and rhythmically, as if through a kaleidoscope. Sgambati here appears to be using the Lisztian technique of thematic transformation.
His orchestration is always elegant and translucent, never giving rise to the sense that it is lacking some grand polyphonic character. The second movement (Andante mesto), for example, features a limpid melody of obvious Italian inspiration, but “orchestrated” in the German manner. Here the two main themes are presented above a rocking accompaniment from cellos and basses. The first is given to the oboe, and is then paraphrased by the flute, which then introduces the second theme. This in turn introduces an animated central section where, fantasia-like, the tension breaks and the music runs free; the increasingly agitated pace then leads to a repeat of the exposition.
The quality of the orchestration is particularly evident in the Scherzo, whose inventive power and rhapsodic nature recall the Prelude to Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. The following Serenata, meanwhile, is especially noteworthy for its happy fusion of disparate elements. Out of a timid but inexorable introduction, marked lento crescendo, on dark strings, there emerges a suspended accompaniment and then a delicate cantabile melody, initially for violins only, which takes on a hint of mystery at various points within the development section.
The Allegro finale can be seen as a synthesis of the appassionato impulses prevalent in the opening movement and in the cantabile sections of the other three. The intense process of variation and elaboration to which the initial motif is subjected is particularly striking: it is twisted and bent in various ways within the rondo structure, into which are inserted moments of cantabile delicacy such as the central section (Andante) as well as episodes rich in rhythmic elaboration which lead into the exultant final bars.
Sgambati’s music is still dogged by the critical prejudices of the early twentieth century, according to which his late approach to the German symphonic tradition prevented his being considered as anything more than a less illustrious post-Romantic imitator. Only very recently has his work been recognised for the enormously valuable historical rôle it played in a country that, having for centuries been at the vanguard of European musical production, had in the space of a few decades fallen off the map in terms of non-operatic music, to the extent that it took this composer from Rome to introduce Beethoven’s Eroica to Italian audiences, more than sixty years after its original premiere.
English translation by Susannah Howe
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