Role models of greatness.
Friday, December 7, 2012
Louis Moreau Gottschalk
His father was an English Jew working in New Orleans as a real estate speculator, and his mother was of French descent. She had grown up in Haiti and fled to Louisiana after a slave uprising threatened the ruling class. By the age of thirteen, Gottschalk’s talent had become so prodigious that he was sent to Paris to study at the Conservatoire. Denied entrance to that august institution*, he studied piano and composition privately, culminating in his public debut in Paris at the famed Salle Pleyel in 1845. The precocious sixteen-year-old’s performance won the admiration of Chopin.
* The Conservatoire rejected Gottschalk’s application without hearing him on the grounds of his nationality. Pierre Zimmermann, the head of the piano faculty, derisively commented that "America is a country of steam engines".
During the summer of 1848 Gottschalk wrote two piano pieces based on Louisiana Créole tunes, La Savane and Bamboula. He introduced them into the salons of Paris in early 1849, and the strongly syncopated Bamboula (the title refers to Afro-Caribbean drums) quickly became an underground sensation. In April of that year he performed it at a public concert, where it was received with wild enthusiasm. Dedicated to Isabella II of Spain, Bamboula became one of his signature pieces. Gottschalk disliked performing the standard repertoire (Bach, Mozart and the like), but very much liked performing his own compositions, which were entertaining works of a unique voice that, unfortunately, were subsequently relegated to the category of “novelties.” Some of his pieces found popular use in silent movie houses, and the public eventually identified his music as clichéd, and within a few decades, Gottschalk was condemned as hopelessly old-fashioned.
Gottschalk's first piano works appeared in print in the late 1840s. These syncopated pieces based on Creole melodies gained international popularity. Gottschalk left Paris in 1852 to settle in New York City, where in 1855 he signed a contract with a publisher to issue several piano pieces, including The Banjo and The Last Hope. The latter is a mawkishly melancholy piece that nevertheless achieved great popularity. Gottschalk found himself obligated to repeat it at every piano concert, writing, "even my paternal love for The Last Hope has succumbed under the terrible necessity of meeting it at every step."
Pianist Cyprien Katsaris performs his embellished version of “The Banjo.” Gottschalk’s music lends itself perfectly to this sort of treatment.
Gottschalk’s primary physical and emotional relationships were with men, and he had a particular fondness for young boys. On a concert tour of Spain he “adopted” a very young boy who accompanied him thereafter. Unlike many nineteenth century high profile homosexual or bisexual performers, Gottschalk never married. His extensive tours abroad protected him from the condemnation of America’s puritanical standards and judgment.
At the age of twenty six at a concert in Dodsworth Hall, on Broadway at 11th Street, an area which was then the nerve center of New York City’s musical life, Gottschalk at last found his niche with an audience. Even with his new-found success and popularity, Gottschalk was a nervous nail-biter who bloodied his fingers before recitals, gnawing away at them anxiously. After his mother’s death in 1857 he left for a concert tour of the Caribbean that stretched out to five years. Upon his return, his country was in the midst of the Civil War, and Gottschalk became a Union sympathizer, in spite of his southern roots. He was a superlative showman, presenting flamboyant musical spectaculars. He once placed on a single stage forty pianos played by eighty pianists. All in a day’s work for Gottschalk.
After a tour of California in 1865, he once more left the U.S., this time for Panama City. Once there, Gottschalk decided not to return to NYC, instead pressing on to Peru, Chile, Uruguay, and Argentina, staying just one step ahead of revolutions, rioting, and cholera epidemics. He was greatly influenced by the melodies and rhythms of these countries, and they were echoed in his compositions. At the height of his success and popularity, Gottschalk contracted malaria in Brazil in 1869. During a concert in Rio de Janeiro later that year, Gottschalk collapsed at the keyboard, and on December 18, 1869, Gottschalk died at the tender age of 40.
American pianist Eugene List (1918-1985) and Irishman Philip Martin (b. 1949) both championed the works of Gottschalk and performed and recorded most of the extant piano solo repertoire of 200 pieces. A 1995 biography by A. Frederick Star, Bamboula! The life and times of Louis Moreau Gottschalk, brought Gottchalk’s sexuality to the forefront.
"Fiesta criolla" from Gottschalk's Symphony no. 1, "La nuit des tropiques" (Symphonie romantique). The Basel Festival Orchestra conducted by Thomas Herzog in 2008.