Musical unknown America : Gottschalk (1829-1869)
Gottschalk was born in 1829 (May 8) in New Orleans and died in 1869 (December 18) in Tijuca near Rio de Janeiro. When he died “he was the most famous musician in the Western Hemisphere” (Kirsch, 2006). He was called the Chopin of the Creoles and enjoyed the reputation of today’s rock stars. He was a great composer but also a virtuoso pianist. He played in very various places: “in the smallest towns of the American West, on isolated Caribbean plantations, in war-torn Latin American capitals”. He played before Isabella II of Spain, at the beginning of his brilliant career, for President Lincoln during the Civil War, and for the Emperor of Brazil too. Gottschalk died when he was 40 years old. 50 years later fashion had changed and his music had been nearly forgotten, apart from some well-known sentimental works such as The Last Hope, Religious Meditation (1854) and The Dying Poet, Meditation (1863-1864).
However Gottschalk deserves now a revival: that is to say a better place in the history of music and in the American musical tradition.
Like his music, Gottschalk’s origins are various. He is an example of the different cultures which made America: his father, Edward Gottschalk, was a very rich English London-born Jewish merchant and slave trader of German origin and a gentleman of great culture, able to speak up to nine languages, and his mother Aimée claimed that she had French aristocratic origin (but that is in fact a complete fabrication). Gottschalk’s grandmother was born in the opulent colony of Saint-Domingue and the allegedly noble family owned a plantation before they fled the rebellion of Toussaint-Louverture (1743-1803) when the British troops had abandoned the island and then the family had escaped to Louisiana, a French possession.
Gottschalk was born in New Orleans in 1829 in a house that still exists today. At this time, 50 percent of the city was made up by Creoles. Gottschalk was raised by his White Creole mother and a Black Creole nurse. Hence, from his birth, he was exposed to French and African Caribbean melodies which justify a deep impression on him. According to Vernon Loggins’ sometimes imaginative biography (1958), Gottschalk could listen to the sounds of the streets from his house. New Orleans was a very vivid town in which music filled the streets, as is still the case today. One very popular spot for song and dance was Congo Square; well-known to have been the location of Sunday afternoon public dances in the early nineteenth century. Gottschalk was supposed to hear drums and to see hundreds of dancers here. This fantastic spectacle would give birth to one of most famous Gottschalk’s works, Bamboula, negro dance (1844-1845), which was dedicated to “Her Majesty Isabella II, the Queen of the Spains”.
The young Gottschalk began to play the piano at the age of 3 years old and quickly revealed to be a piano prodigy. He easily picked up tunes of many popular French operas premiering in New Orleans and created variations on the well-known arias and themes, a kind of exercise that will become one of his specialities. In 1840, Gottschalk made his unformal debut as a pianist and was identified on the program of a concert in an hotel of the wealthy New Orleans as “Young X, a Creole”. But it was an instant success and two years later, he had learned all the elements that local musicians can teach to him. That is why he decided to go to Europe, more precisely in Paris.
George Gershwin (1898-1937) wrote his symphonic composition An American in Paris in 1928. Going to Paris, the center of the musical world, was no small adventure in the mid-19th century. Gottschalk was only 12 years old in 1841 when his parents decided to send him more than 3000 miles away to Paris where he could complete his musical education and met Berlioz, Chopin and other famous composers.
In fact Gottschalk was refused admission to the Conservatoire where strangers were not easily admitted at that time. Here is the opinion of the director of the Conservatoire Pierre Zimmermann (1785-1853): “Americans are only seriously interested in steam engines”. Moreover he told Gottschalk to go home and learn to become a mechanic. Gottschalk decided to take private lessons to become a professional. However Gottschalk was not isolated : he had zealous and enthusiastic admirers such as Berlioz, Chopin and a few other ones. Some positive opinions on Gottschalk for instance:
Frederic CHOPIN (1810-1849): “Give me your hand, my child. I predict that you will become the king of pianists”.
Hector BERLIOZ (1803-1869):
The young Gottschalk made his real concert debut in Paris in 1849 and then he gained fame throughout Western Europe (more especially in Spain and in Switzerland) with his virtuosic playing and Creole-inspired compositions.
With such a cultural formation in European music, Gottschalk decided to return to his native country in 1853 presumably in order to capitalize on his European reputation. “A mere pianist”, The New York Times reported in 1853. Gottschalk’s playing “dazzles, astonishes”. When Gottschalk played, it sounded as if more than one person were at the keyboard. But in reality things proved to be more difficult than expected…
The guardians of musical taste in America, often German immigrants defending a kind of German model in music, had a bad opinion of Gottschalk’s music. John Sullivan Dwight (1813-1893), an editor and musical critic, was one of these guardians: for him, music was symbolized by the symphonies of titans such as Beethoven, Haydn or Mozart – some composers who were very rarely played by Gottschalk who was well-known for playing his own composition instead. Gottschalk was not very interested in that kind of music of the classical era and writes: “[their piano music] falls below mediocrity - the least pianist of any intelligence, in our days, writes infinitely better than Beethoven ever did" (cf. William L. Hawes, The Musician, October, 1908). Gottschalk pleased the crowd with fantasias on themes from Donizetti and Verdi, sometimes played by dozens of pianos in "monster" concerts – an idea Gottschalk got in Europe where he saw Berlioz’ big orchestra. This did not mean that Gottschalk did not like Beethoven’s music for instance. He could play the sonatas of the Master and he admired him for his brilliant symphonic works. But in purely pianistic terms, Mozart’s or Beethoven’s sonatas belonged to the past. The piano technique, with Chopin and Liszt, had significantly evolved since the Classical Era.
So there was always the suspicion that he was not a truly classical musician. But on the other hand, Gottschalk’s music was considered to be “too learned”, that is to say to sophisticated for the American crowd. This opposition between a biased vision of what serious classical music should be and a more popular musical form has created a fissure that still exists today. For instance, jazz has grown up inside it. Looking back to musical history, the strength of Gottschalk was to try to bridge the gap between the elites and the people. He often used popular tunes in some of his most substantial works (for instance: Souvenir de Porto Rico, Marche des Gibaros, 1857, The Union, Concert Paraphrase, 1862, Home, Sweet Home, 1862). On the other hand he composed a few works to meet the needs of a audience who did not have always unfailingly good taste (for example: Chant du Martyr , 1853-1858, Le Réveil de l'aigle, grande polka guerrière, after 1852), while he was also very critical of that kind of popularity-seeking composers.
Gottschalk never returned to his hometown New Orleans for more than a couple weeks at a time following his departure in 1841, nor did he ever settle in the United States. He never married, preferring instead to travel the United States and Europe and to trace his Creole history back to the Caribbean region as well as Cuba and South America. He died in 1869 most probably because of his extensive touring.
Thanks to Gottschalk’s charming and fascinating diaries called Notes of a pianist which he kept in French and that was edited by Gottschalk’s sister in 1881, we have an idea of the life of this musical superstar between 1857 and 1868:
Gottschalk’s life looked like a strange, nonstop, long trip, with train accidents, delays and so on... Gottschalk wrote in his diary: “My home is somewhere between the baggage car and the last car of the train. […] The conductors salute me as one of the employees.” Gottschalk traveled from Cuba to Montreal, from New York to Lima, averaging one recital a day. Gottschalk wrote at the end of 1862: "I have given eighty-five concerts in four months and a half. I have traveled fifteen thousand miles by train. A few more weeks in this way and I would have become an idiot! Eighteen hours a day on the railroad! Arrive at seven o'clock in the evening, eat with all speed, appear at eight o'clock before the public. The last note finished, rush quickly for my luggage, and en route until next day, always the same thing! I have become stupid with it. I have the appearance of an automaton under the influence of a voltaic pile. […] The sight of a piano sets my hair on end like the victim in the presence of the wheel on which he is about to be tortured.” When he arrived in San Francisco in May 1865, Gottschalk calculated that he had travelled 95,000 miles on the railway and given 1100 concerts.
Gottschalk’s diary is also very interesting for those who want to discover the unknown musical life of mid-19th-century Americans. Often Gottschalk is astonished by his listeners' ignorance. In a small town called Zanesville (Ohio), a woman in the audience laughs at the movement of his feet - she had never seen a piano with pedals, and thought he was doing a little dance with his feet. In another city, a farmer who had never seen a piano thought it was a big accordion. With his one-dollar-ticket-price concerts, Gottschalk has had a huge influence on the musical life of people of all parts and of all social classes of the United States.
Gottschalk’s music is an exciting, melodious, rythmic, romantic, highly-accessible output. It is difficult to understand why it is not better known, and why you hear it so rarely performed in concerts or on the radio, all the more so as it incorporates elements of European music, sometimes Chopinesque, sometimes Lisztian, and elements of the folk and popular music of the Americas and uses Latin American and Afro-American melodies and rhythms in an idiomatic way that preceded by half a century their similar use in ragtime and early jazz.
A few examples:
The Miserere was originally a two-piano transcription of the part of an opera by Verdi called “Il trovatore”. It was performed by Thalberg (1812-1871, an Austrian virtuoso pianist) and Gottschalk at the Niblo’s Garden concerts in New York. Richard Hoffman, a friend of Gottschalk and pianist said: “a remarkable double trill which Thalberg played on the middle of the piano, while Gottschalk was flying all over the keyboard in the ‘Anvil Chorus,’ produced the most prodigious volume of tone I ever heard from the piano. […] Gottschalk was possessed of a ringing, scintillating touch, which, joined to a poetic charm of expression, seemed to sway the emotions of his audience with almost hypnotic power.”
Second Banjo (1852-1853)
The Second Banjo had an enormous success in New Orleans in 1854. It is an ostinato-rich piece with virtuosic ornaments which evokes the sound of a banjo but also imitates the gestures of a banjo player. There is of course a link with the musical ambiance of the New Orleans of Gottschalk’s childhood. Last but not least, it anticipates Debussy’s ragtime period and Debussy must have heard this piece when he wrote his Minstrels and his Golliwog’s Cakewalk.
The Union is a spectacular Lisztian fantasy on “The Star-Spangled Banner,” “Hail, Columbia,” and “Yankee Doodle” that Gottschalk played at the White House in 1864.
The Dying Poet, Meditation (1863-1864)
This piece was aimed at being executed with ease by amateur pianists. The Dying Poet eventually became a standby of silent-movie pianists.
Aeolian Murmurs (1860)
A Lisztian poem, the interpretation of which is so musically and technically demanding that Gottschalk wrote a note in the edition of the score for the amateur pianists who would venture to try to play this beautiful nocturne.
Gottschalk still belongs to unknown America but things are probably going to change. Gottschalk was a pioneer at his time. He appeared before audiences that knew nothing about classical music and could be seen as a first and clever multiculturalist. He is definitively a figure of significance and this rare individuality deserves our attention.
Gottschalk’s tour in the United States, The Nation, January 5, 1882
Gottschalk's views regarding Beethoven's sonatas, William L. Hawes, The Musician, October, 1908
Our First Musical Ambassador, Ernest L. Bolling, 1932
A real pioneer, Time, June 14, 1968
Chopin called him the king of pianists, Peter Andrews, American Heritage, dec 1982, vol 34 n°1
Review of: Notes of a Pianist , Adam Kirsch, The New York Sun, June 7, 2006
Our Gottschalk, Terry Teachout, 2006
Frederick Starr - Louis Moreau Gottschalk
This biography is certainly the most complete. Starr analyses the life of Gottschalk from a thematic and chronological point of view. It is extraordinarily documented, supported by an impressive and very clear bibliography. Besides, numerous compositions are quoted and placed in their context. Essential book !!
Reginald Hamel - Louis Moreau Gottschalk and His Time
This Canadian (written in French) book, is mainly based on the travels of Gottschalk. It contains a long, commented chronological table of all the moves of Gottschalk. It is enough to deserve a purchase. Hamel travelled to nearly all these locations and added many personal photographs. With a quite unusual style (cross-references, many digressions), this biography seems to have been written for Gottschalk experts. Many ideas spread by biographers or Gottschalk himself are re-examined and refuted. A portrait with no concession is then drawn. All is re-analysed, from the origins of Gottschalk to his psychology (sexuality, character...), the whole placed in the context of his era. It's a shame that some analysis are sometimes only supported by the imagination of the writer. Despite the consultation of numerous sources, references are not written and some affirmations are doubtful. We do not want to defend Gottschalk at any price but he is sometimes the victim of speculations non-supported by a strong argumentation. It is however a mine of informations.
Vernon Loggins - Where the Word Ends
This book, first great american universitary work, is full of anecdotes about Gottschalk. Some are well documented. Other seem to be just fictitious. Hence, many doubtful or even totally false facts can be found in this book. The style is quite pleasant and make reading easier.
Franciso Curt Lange - Vida Y Muerte de Louis Moreau Gottschalk en Rio de Janeiro (1869)
This argentine book, published within two editions of the magazine "Revista de Estudios Musicales" relates the last year of Gottschalk's life and all the events occuring after his death, particularly the dispersion of his possessions. Many contemporary pictures, photographs and articles can be found there. Very rich in references and extremely well documented. No english translation has been yet found.
Having not been edited since 1950 and the author being dead, we make this book available here.
Luis Ricardo Fors - Luis Moreau Gottschalk
Also in spanish (Cuba), this book is certainly the first complete biography of Gottschalk. Luis Ricardo Fors was an acquaintance of Gottschalk and can enrich his biography with testimonies. Besides, this book has been a basis for many biographers. It seems yet to accumulate a lot of mistakes (according to Starr and Doyle). An english translation was realised some years ago by a New Yorker but it is still not published.
We have realised a new edition of this book to facilitate the research of information.
Octavia Hensel - Life & Letters of Louis Moreau Gottschalk
In this old book, a pupil and friend (and perhaps more) of Gottschalk gathers his own testimonies and reconstructed conversations but also some coming from Gottschalk's friends and relatives. Moreover, we can find letters wrote or received by Gottschalk and the essay "Notes of a Pianist" as it was published in 1865 in "The Atlantic Monthly". It is absolutely not objective but rich in anecdotes.
The biographies which were written before or just after the death of Gottschalk generally accumulate many errors in the related historical facts. They are here available to offer some interesting testimonies and comments on Gottschalk and his works.
- 1849, La France Musicale (April) (only in French).
In April 1849, "La France Musicale" publishes short notices on "Instrumentists and singers". The musician following Gottschalk in this journal is Offenbach (who also begins to do successful concerts). This notice gives an idea about the fulgurant ascension of Gottschalk. Few biographical elements here but a testimony on the talent and precocity of Gottschalk.
-1851, Hector Berlioz in the "Journal des Débats" (April) (complete article in French) & In english (extract generally written)
Berlioz (1803-1869) makes here the elogious critic of a Gottschalk's concert. These few words will be a passport for the glory of this young celebrity. Gottschalk would have assisted Berlioz in several music festivals organised by him. These monster concerts may have inspired Gottschalk when he settled his owns in Havana or Rio. Berlioz and Gottschalk will remain close friends and continue to have a correspondance after the return of Gottschalk in America.
- 1851, Courrier de la Gironde (June) (only in French)
In Bordeaux, even if he can't play in the Grand Theatre because he doesn't want to pay the high fees, Gottschalk obtains great successes in the salons and little concert rooms. A journalist of "Courrier de la Gironde" Jean Saint-Rieul Dupouy, going further than the simple concert review, comments here the talents of Gottschalk as human, composer and pianist. A testimony which has all its place here.
- 1853, Henry Didimus in Graham's magazine ; complete magazine available here, on Google Books.
First hand and complete biography of Gottschalk prior to his return to the United States. It is divided into two parts : childhood (New Orleans and Parisians debuts) and European fame (Switzerland and Spain). The author seems to have been a witness of Gottschalk's successes in New Orleans and relates some interesting anecdotes. The following part of the biography have plenty of them too and allowed american readers waiting for Gottschalk with a high fervor. Henry Didimus also analyses and comments some compositions as the "Bamboula".
- 1856, Oscar Commettant in "Trois ans aux Etats-Unis" (only in French)
Oscar Commettant (1819-1898), composer and musicologist (he also wrote "Music and musicians") was a friend of Gottschalk's family and also took care of his brother Edouard (according to Reginald Hamel in "Louis Moreau Gottschalk et son Temps"). Commettant gives in this short extract a short opinion on the bad reception received by Gottschalk at his return from Europe.
- 1858, Léon Escudier in "Mes souvenirs, les virtuoses" (only in French)
Léon Escudier (1821-1881), and his brother Marie (1819-1880) were the owners of "La France Musicale" which was published until 1870. Léon also created, on his own, "l'Art musical". These two magazines decided the musical celebrities of the second half of the XIXth century. First editor to trust Gottschalk, Escudier will publish the first and main compositions of Gottschalk and will largely promote them (see for example "le Bamboula", "the Bamboula" (english)). Leon will also receive many letters or essays from Gottschalk and publish some of them in his magazine. He will vainly wait for Gottschalk's return to Europe and will announce it several times. The chapter dedicated to Gottschalk that was retranscribed here only relates the successes and totally ignore the darkest periods (the year 1853 is not evocated). As usual, we find here a large number of mistakes about the origins of Gottschalk's family but some anecdotes have a high interest, particularly about Gottschalk's childhood, certainly related by Gottschalk himself or by his mother and sisters remained in France (Reginald Hamel believes in a love relation between Gottschalk's mother and Leon Escudier).
- 1872, Nicolás Ruiz Espadero in "Prefatory Remarks by an artist friend of the great composer".
Pianist-composer and great cuban friend of Gottschalk, Espadero (1832-1890) will assist him in almost all his festivals. He will give Gottschalk the melody of "La Chute des Feuilles" and Gottschalk will inspire "Sur la tombe de Gottschalk" . Espadero spent several weeks with Gottschalk to write down many of the melodies of the latter.At Gottschalk's death, he published a number of "posthumous" works from them or from manuscripts he recovered. It is in the preface to these works that we find this text not necessarily objective, but a moving testimony on Gottschalk and his compositions in musical history. All the manuscripts owned by Espadero may not have been all made available. Gottschalk says of Espadero "He has written with such a freshness of melody, an elegance of harmony, a sonority and knowledge of the piano, that a prominent place in insured for him among the multitude of modern composers. "
- 1878, Antoine François Marmontel dans les "Pianistes célèbres". (only in french); complete book available here, on the Sibley's Library page.
Antoine François Marmontel (1816-1898) was one of the great pedagogues of the XIXth century. We count Georges Bizet and Claude Debussy (article on Wikipedia) among his pupils. Gottschalk performed in several events organized by him.They will remain good friends. This biography contains many mistakes in historical facts (we tried to correct the main ones according to the book by F. Starr). This text gives many relevant informations concerning the personality of Gottschalk and his piano technique.
-1878-1880, Arthur Pougin (1834-1921), in "Biographie universelle des musiciens et bibliographie générale de la musique ; Supplément et complément publiés sous la direction de M. Arthur Pougin", published in 1881" (only in french)
A lot of errors in this biography, often the same as in Marmontel's one (Gottschalk's father is very rich and Master of Science ; his ancestors were Count and Governor of St. Domingo...) !! So many exxagerations which were accepted without hesitation before recent biographers as R. Hamel restore the truth about the origins of Gottschalk. However, we also find here an emphasis on the originality, the inimitable style of Gottschalk. An certainly too important originality which could perhaps explain the long disappearance of his music. Pleyel said at the time of the funeral of Chopin "Only Gottschalk can replace Chopin". Gottschalk may have suffered from not finding a relay of his music and his style after his death.
-1881, Clara Gottschalk in "Notes of a Pianist" complete book available here, on the site of Internet Archive.
Clara Gottschalk Peterson, Louis Moreau's sister, published in 1881, after an approximative translation in English, the travel notes of his brother under the title "Notes of a Pianist" (named after the article published in Atlantic Monthly in 1865). It is a long biographical preface gathering many testimonials and reviews from newspapers (all elogious). Very little objectivity and some erroneous informations in this biography. Yet, it remains rich in anecdotes and is a very interesting text to get details on Gottschalk's life, including his childhood and European tour.
- 1891, George T. Ferris (1840-?) in "Violinists and Pianists" complete book available here as ebook, on the Gutenberg project page.
This biography is rich in biographical informations (and is a part of a more general chapter on "Thalberg and Gottschalk", starting from their "rivalry" during their New-York concerts in 1856).We find here a large part of the article "Notes of a Pianist" which was published in The Atlantic Monthly in 1865. Here, the appreciation of Gottschalk's compositions is completely modeled on John Sullivan Dwight's one, i.e recognition of a prodigious technique but works with neither ambition nor imagination.
- 1897, published in 1910 ; Richard Hoffman (1831-1909) in “Some Musical Recollections of Fifty Years" complete book available here, on the site of Internet Archive.
Richard Hoffman was a pianist-composer (more info) who played with Gottschalk in some piano duets He can therefore judge the man and his mannerings and also traces here the pianistic relationship between Thalberg and Gottschalk.
Pianist-composer and also a native from New Orleans, perhaps a disciple of Gottschalk, John Francis Gilder used to play his works (Starr, "LMG"). Having attended several Gottschalk's concerts , he gives here his opinion on both the composer, comparing him to Thalberg and Rubinstein and the virtuoso, considering Liszt and Gottschalk as the greatest pianists of all time. - 1901, William Mason (1829-1908) in "Memories of a musical Life" complete book available here, on the site of Internet Archive.
William Mason also acquainted Gottschalk and saw him play several times. We will find here a short testimony with some interesting informations on the pianistic play and musical tastes of Gottschalk.
- 1913, Clara Louise Kellog (1842-1916) in "Memoirs of an American Prima Donna" ; complete book available here, on the site of Internet Archive.
Clara Louise Kellog was a very famous soprano in the late XIXth century. She married in 1886 with Carl Strakosch, nephew of Gottschak's impresarios (Max and Maurice). She assisted Gottschalk in some concerts, particularly in 1856 (year of the "rivalry" between Thalberg and Gottschalk) and in 1862 during a short american tour. After a short description of the main differences between Thalberg and Gottschalk, she offers us an amusing anecdote with the tenor Brignoli, revealing once again the charm of Gottschalk to the fairer sex.