Louis Moreau Gottschalk - The First Great American Composer December 24 2020
When Louis Moreau Gottschalk was born in New Orleans on May 8, 1829, the United States was still a relatively new country. John Quincy Adams started the year as President, with Andrew Jackson being sworn in on March 4. The first patent on a typewriter (known as a typographer) was obtained by William Austin Burt, and the first significant Gold Rush began in Hall County, Georgia.
In New Orleans, Louis Moreau Gottschalk was born into, natural gas was just about to be introduced as a source of power, and the Pontchartrain Railroad was just a few years away. His father, Edward Gottschalk, was a Jewish businessman from London, and his mother, Aimée Marie Bruslé, was French Creole. Her own mother had been born in Saint-Domingue (now Haiti), as had his nurse, Sally, so he had early exposure to a very wide range of musical traditions and styles.
His musical education began early; playing the piano from a young age, he was recognized as a prodigy in New Orleans and made his public debut at only 11 years old at the St. Charles Hotel, a Grecian palace-style building which had opened three years earlier in 1837, and which is still open today (albeit in its third incarnation, since fires destroyed both the first and second buildings).
Louis Moreau Gottschalk was only 13 when he and his father decided that he needed proper, comprehensive classical training to further his musical skills. He applied to the Paris Conservatoire, which unfortunately rejected him without even hearing him.
Head of piano at that point was Pierre Zimmerman, a former Conservatoire student himself who was the son of a piano maker. He'd been a full professor since 1816 - a position he held until 1848 - and taught some of the biggest names of 19th-century French music; Gounod, Bizet, Franck, Alkan, and Thomas. However, he refused Gottschalk because he was American, and therefore from a country of "steam engines".
Louis Moreau Gottschalk's entry into Paris musical circles came through family friends, but his uniquely American compositions marked him out and made sure that he was viewed differently. Early compositions from this period include Bamboula and La Savane, which are clear precursors of jazz, and present the legacy of music sung and played by slaves. They also brought Louisiana Creole music into the American and European classical music mainstream. Gottschalk's talents as a composer and pianist led Chopin to predict that the boy would "become the king of pianists", and other recognizers of his talent included Alkan and Liszt.
Return to America
1853 saw a return to the United States, which he proceeded to use as base to travel to South America extensively. In 1854, he stayed in Cuba, and after his concert debut in Havana, traveled on to Puerto Rico. This was the start of what is known as Gottschalk's "West Indian" period. Louis Moreau Gottschalk fell in love with the music he heard in Puerto Rico, leading him to compose the Souvenir de Porto Rico: Marche des gibaros Op. 31 (RO250), probably in 1857. The 'Jibaro' of the title is a word used to refer to those that farm the land and live a traditional life in Puerto Rico. Jibaros were merchant farmers, who would grow enough to sell rather than just enough to live. Today, Puerto Ricans look on and identify themselves with Jibaros with pride as they are a huge part of their culture.
Gottschalk's composition has a march tune as its main theme, which is probably based on a Puerto Rican folk song or folk song form.
After his South America tour, Gottschalk returned to New York City via a short stay in New Jersey where he did something he would very rarely do - he took on a student. The student was Teresa Carreño, and as Gottschalk had been in childhood, was also much considered to be a prodigy. Despite having been one himself, Gottschalk was skeptical about the whole idea of prodigies but made a determined exception with Carreño. However, Gottschalk's own performance schedule was busy, and he only gave her a few lessons. He made a huge impact, and she would go on to perform Gottschalk's music for the rest of her life. Just a year after her lessons with Gottschalk, the future "Valkyrie of the Piano" performed for Abraham Lincoln.
During the mid-1850s, Gottschalk connected with members of New York artistic community, including sculptor Erastus Dow Palmer (famous for his marble sculptures, particularly 'The White Captive'), landscape painter Frederic Edwin Church (notable for 'Morning in the Tropics' and 'Twilight in the Wildnerness'), as well as composer George William Warren (composer of anthems and hymns). Church had also traveled extensively throughout South America (particularly in Colombia and Ecuador), and Gottschalk dedicated his Mazurka Poétique to him, who gave Gottschalk a small landscape painting in return. It's likely this circle of friendship also led to Warren collaborating with Gottschalk on his 1863 work, The Andes, Marche di Bravoura, a piece of solo piano music he wrote, again inspired by a work of Church's, The Heart of the Andes.
By 1860, Louis Moreau Gottschalk was the most famous virtuoso pianists in his country. However, his support of the Union cause during the American Civil War meant that he rarely returned to New Orleans except for concerts, although he was always proud to declare himself a native of New Orleans when he did.
He left the United States for the last time in 1865 after a scandal involving an affair with a student at the Oakland Female Seminary (a private California girls' school opened in 1858). Earlier that year, a San Francisco newspaper had remarked that he had given 1,000 concerts and traveled 95,000 miles by rail - no mean feat for the 19th century.
He returned to his beloved South America, still giving frequent popular concerts, and fully planning to return to the United States in 1870 to prepare some of his larger works for publication and more concert activity. However, he contracted yellow fever, and during a concert at the Teatro Lyrico Fluminense in Rio de Janeiro in November 1869, he collapsed - just after he had finished playing his romantic piano piece Morte!, and just as he started to play one of his most celebrated piano pieces, Tremolo. He never recovered.
He died three weeks later, on December 18th, 1869, at his hotel in Tijuca, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, at age 40. There is some debate as to whether he died from an overdose of quinine, or from sepsis from empyema (a collection of pus in the abdomen). His body was later returned to the United States the following year, and he was buried at the Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, New York (other notable burials include composer Richard Rodney Bennett, hot dog 'inventor' Charles Feltman, and Laura Keene, the actress who was onstage when Lincoln was shot). His marble memorial monument was damaged by vandals in 1959, and not replaced until 2012.
Perhaps unusually, Louis Moreau Gottschalk's music was extremely popular during his lifetime, orchestral and piano compositions, not just in his native America but in South America and Europe too. His early works such as Bamboula, Le Bananier, and Le Mancenillier are thought to be the earliest pieces of traditional creole music that exist in classical music.
He didn't just write piano music - there are the operas, the charming Escenas Campestres (Cuban Country Scenes), Amalia Warden (sadly, currently lost, and from the same source materials as Verdi's Un ballo in maschera) and Isaura di Salerno (lost in a Maryland snowstorm and rewritten in the last months of Gottschalk's life, and now sadly lost again), and symphonies Symphony Romantique, and A Night in the Tropics, recorded by the Utah Symphony Orchestra under Maurice Abravanel. As for the piano music, Philip Martin has recorded most of what still exists for Hyperion Records. However, sadly, much of what the virtuoso Louis Moreau Gottschalk wrote was lost or destroyed after he died.
More of his works may yet come to light, either in the States or in South America, but for now, his unique voice in a few works and some memorabilia - such as this photo (see link below) - is all we have.