Louis Moreau Gottschalk (May 8, 1829 –
December 18, 1869) was an American composer and pianist, best known
as a virtuoso performer of his own romantic piano works. He spent
most of his working career outside of the United States.
Life and career
Gottschalk was born in New Orleans to a Jewish businessman from
London and a Creole mother. He had six brothers and sisters, five of
whom were half-siblings by his father's mixed-race mistress (she
would have been called mulatto at the time). His family lived for a
time in a tiny cottage at Royal and Esplanade in the Vieux Carré.
Louis later moved in with relatives at 518 Conti Street; his
maternal grandmother Bruslé and his nurse Sally had both been born
in Saint-Domingue (known later as Haiti). He was therefore exposed
to a variety of musical traditions, and played the piano from an
early age. He was soon recognized as a prodigy by the New Orleans
bourgeois establishment, making his informal public debut in 1840 at
the new St. Charles Hotel.
Only two years later, at the age of
13, Gottschalk left the United States and sailed to Europe, as he
and his father realized a classical training was required to fulfil
his musical ambitions. The Paris Conservatoire, however, rejected
his application without hearing him, on the grounds of his
nationality; Pierre Zimmermann, head of the piano faculty, commented
that "America is a country of steam engines". Gottschalk gradually
gained access to the musical establishment through family friends.
After Gottschalk returned to the
United States in 1853, he traveled extensively; a sojourn in Cuba
during 1854 was the beginning of a series of trips to Central and
South America. Gottschalk also traveled to Puerto Rico after his
Havana debut and at the start of his West Indian period. He was
quite taken with the music he heard on the island, so much so that
he composed a work, probably in 1857, entitled Souvenir de Porto
Rico; Marche des gibaros, Op. 31 (RO250). "Gibaros" refers to the
jíbaros, or Puerto Rican peasantry, and is an antiquated way of
writing this name. The theme of the composition is a march tune
which may be based on a Puerto Rican folk song form. By the 1860s,
Gottschalk had established himself as the best known pianist in the
New World. Although born and reared in New Orleans, he was a
supporter of the Union cause during the American Civil War. He
returned to his native city only occasionally for concerts, but he
always introduced himself as a New Orleans native.
In May 1865, he was mentioned in a
San Francisco newspaper as having "travelled 95,000 miles by rail
and given 1,000 concerts". However, he was forced to leave the
United States later that year because of a scandalous affair with a
student at the Oakland Female Seminary in Oakland, California. He
never returned to the United States.
Gottschalk chose to travel to South
America, where he continued to give frequent concerts. During one of
these concerts, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on November 24, 1869, he
collapsed from having contracted malaria. Just before his collapse,
he had finished playing his romantic piece Morte! (interpreted as
"she is dead"), although the actual collapse occurred just as he
started to play his celebrated piece Tremolo. Gottschalk never
recovered from the collapse.
Three weeks later, on December 18,
1869, at the age of 40, he died at his hotel in Tijuca, Rio de
Janeiro, probably from an overdose of quinine. (According to an
essay by Jeremy Nicholas for the booklet accompanying the recording
"Gottschalk Piano Music" performed by Philip Martin on the Hyperion
label, "He died ... of empyema, the result of a ruptured abscess in
In 1870, his remains were returned
to the United States and were interred at the Green-Wood Cemetery in
Brooklyn, New York. His burial spot was originally marked by a
magnificent marble monument, topped by an "Angel of Music" statue,
which was irreparably damaged by vandals in 1959. In October 2012,
after nearly fifteen years of fund raising by the Green-Wood
Cemetery, a new "Angel of Music" statue, created by sculptors
Giancarlo Biagi and Jill Burkee to replace the damaged one, was
unveiled. His grand-nephew Louis Ferdinand Gottschalk was a notable
composer of silent film and musical theatre scores.
Gottschalk's music was very popular during his lifetime and his
earliest compositions created a sensation in Europe. Early pieces
like Bamboula, La Savane, Le Bananier and Le Mancenillier were based
on Gottschalk's memories of the music he heard during his youth in
Louisiana. In this context, some of Gottschalk's work, such as the
13-minute opera Escenas campestres, retains a wonderfully innocent
sweetness and charm. Gottschalk also utilized the Bamboula theme as
a melody in his Symphony No. 1: A Night in the Tropics.
Many of his compositions were
destroyed after his death, or are lost.
Various pianists later recorded his piano music. The first important
recordings of his orchestral music, including the symphony A Night
in the Tropics, were made for Vanguard Records by Maurice Abravanel
and the Utah Symphony Orchestra. Vox Records issued a multi-disc
collection of his music, which was later reissued on CD. This
included world premiere recordings of the original orchestrations of
both symphonies and other works, which were conducted by Igor
Buketoff and Samuel Adler. More recently, Philip Martin has recorded
most of the extant piano music for Hyperion Records.
In popular culture
Author Howard Breslin wrote a historical novel about Gottschalk
titled Concert Grand in 1963.
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia