A child prodigy, Giovanni Sgambati was playing piano in public at age 6, and composing shortly thereafter.
His family lived in Trevi in the 1850s; there he pursued musical studies before moving back to Rome, his birthplace, in 1860 for advanced study at the Santa Cecilia Academy (which awarded him a diploma in 1866). Sgambati met Franz Liszt in 1862 and fell under the older master's spell, becoming a pupil and close friend. Liszt, for his part, saw in Sgambati an opportunity to groom a talented Italian musician for a career in instrumental music rather than opera, which obsessed most other Italians. For his part, Sgambati promoted Liszt's music and that of other contemporary foreigners, not only as a pianist but also as a conductor; he directed the first Italian performances of Liszt's Dante Symphony and a portion of his Christus.
All the while, Sgambati was making a name for himself on the international piano circuit, taking opportunities while on the road to hear new works by the period's most innovative composers, including Richard Wagner. Sgambati finally met Wagner in 1876, and Wagner was so impressed that he helped Sgambati find a publisher for his piano quintets.
Sgambati had known Anton Rubinstein since 1869, and in 1881 he was offered a teaching position at the Moscow Conservatory; this he refused, preferring to do similar work in Rome. In 1869, he had established in his home a free music school for poor students; in 1877 it became an official institution, ultimately known as the Santa Cecilia Conservatory (related to but not the same as the Academy, where Sgambati had studied). Sgambati taught there for the rest of his life.
Sgambati's compositions are rather difficult to characterize, mingling Italianate, cantabile melodies with devices borrowed from Liszt, Chopin, Mendelssohn, and Schumann. Many of his piano compositions are charming but are a bit too similar to salon pieces for the comfort of the most demanding pianists and listeners, and he seems to get lost in the larger structures of his chamber and orchestral music. Nevertheless, his Requiem has long been used at Italian funerals, his C minor String Quartet was once reasonably popular, and every generation or so a leading pianist is inspired to resurrect Sgambati's Piano Concerto. As an Italian instrumental composer, Sgambati was perhaps more important than individual.