Pensée poétique RO194 Op 62 [3'44]
This fourth volume brings to wider attention more pieces from the pen of Louis Moreau Gottschalk, the father of American composition. With their unique spontaneity and prophetic use of native syncopated rhythms—anticipating ragtime by some 50 years—these are works of intoxicating effect and great individuality.
This volume contains one of Gottschalk's most familiar titles—Morte!!, the last complete work he performed in public. As he began the next piece, he collapsed and died three weeks later.
For a start, how do you pronounce his name? Does the last syllable rhyme with ‘fork’ or ‘talc’? (Comforting to know that his public had the same difficulty; in 1848 the readers of La France Musicale were advised: ‘Close the lips, advance the tongue, appear a little like whistling, and you will have the solution.’) Dates? 1829–1869. Instrument? The piano. Compositions? Mainly short keyboard works (well over a hundred are extant—an almost equal number have been lost), with excursions into opera and orchestral works. Genre? Patriotic fantasies, operatic transcriptions, salon morceaux and, most importantly, the first examples of Creole, Latin-American and Afro-American dance rhythms used in European musical forms. These brief prophetic works—anticipating ragtime by more than half a century and the works of Albéniz,Granados and Milhaud (amongst others)—made Gottschalk the first truly American composer.
Despite this, his music rarely features in concerts or on the radio. Prior to the 1970s very little of it was still in print; hardly any cropped up on record. (The first pianist to record his work appears to have been the Frenchman Lucien Lambert (1858–1945), a pupil of Massenet, who made a couple of Pathé cylinders in Lisbon in 1905 of Gottschalk’s Tarantelle and Variations on the Brazilian National Anthem; Frank La Forge’s rare Victor performance (c1907) of Pasquinade was the first Gottschalk disc.)
His background was exotic. Born a Creole in New Orleans in 1829, he was the oldest of seven children. Moreau (as he was known in the family) was named after his great-uncle Count Moreau de l’Islet. His maternal great-grandfather, Count Antoine de Bruslé, had been a cavalry commander under Louis XV and appointed Governor of Santo Domingo. The family had fled from Haiti to Louisiana because of the slave rebellion of the 1790s. His mother, Marie-Aimée de Bruslé, enjoyed the comfortable life of the upper classes of New Orleans. His father, Edward Gottschalk, was of Jewish extraction, born in London and educated in Germany. His love of travel led him to New Orleans where he established a successful brokerage business.
Apart from his first years spent on the shores of Lake Pontchartrain at Pass Christian, Mississippi, Moreau was brought up in the fashionable French Quarter. Even then, the latest productions of the Paris Opéra and the Comédie-Française crossed the Atlantic to New Orleans, so that he was as familiar with the latest works of the great European composers and dramatists as he was with the bamboula and the slave dances he watched every Sunday afternoon with his father in the Place Congo. (The singing and drumming of the weekly festivity could be heard clearly from the balcony of the Gottschalk home in Rue des Remparts, a stone’s throw from the Place.)
Moreau absorbed the local music like a sponge, for it was apparent from the age of three, when he began to play the piano, that he was a musical prodigy. His first lessons were with François Letellier, organist and choirmaster of St Louis Cathedral, for whom he was skilled enough to deputize by the age of seven. On the advice of Letellier, the Gottschalks dispatched their twelve-year-old son half way round the world to study at the centre of the musical world, Paris—no mean adventure 150 years ago.
As a pianist he matured quickly, studying briefly but unprofitably with Charles Hallé before more beneficial lessons from Charles Stamaty. (Among his classmates was the seven-year-old Saint-Saëns.) Even in a city sated with child wonders, Gottschalk quickly made his mark, his admission to the salons of Paris no doubt aided by two aunts, the Comtesse de Lagrange and the Comtesse de Bourjally. But his striking looks, brilliant technique and ability to improvise—together with his original compositions—excited enormous enthusiasm and his progress was as easy as it was rapid. Chopin predicted that he would become ‘the king of pianists’; Pleyel called him ‘the successor of Chopin’; his friend Berlioz wrote: ‘Gottschalk is one of the very small number who possess all the different elements of a consummate pianist’, and in addition was able to assert, in 1851, that ‘everybody in Europe now knows Bamboula, Le Bananier, Le Mancenillier, La Savane and twenty other ingenious fantasies in which the nonchalant graces of tropical melody assuage so agreeably our restless and insatiable passion for novelty.’
Incorporating as they did snatches of folk tunes and half-remembered ballads from his childhood, these four compositions were the first attempts by a classically- (i.e. European-) trained composer and pianist to utilize the native musical elements of the Americas. When they were first heard in public, Gottschalk was still in his teens and we can imagine the stir they must have created amongst an audience fed on a pianistic diet of sonatas, studies and opera pot-pourris. Hearing this quartet of Louisiana pieces, it is hard to believe that they are more or less contemporaneous with Chopin’s Barcarolle Op 60 and Waltzes Op 64, Schumann’s Piano Trios and Liszt’s Consolations and Liebesträumen. The strutting Danses créoles of Gottschalk are light worlds away and no other composer made use of this particular world again until Scott Joplin’s Maple Leaf Rag was published in 1899.
After Paris, Moreau set out to conquer the rest of Europe which he did with spectacular success. He toured Switzerland and the French provinces in 1851, later that year trying his luck in Spain. Here he became the favourite of Queen Isabella II (who awarded him the Cross of Isabella the Catholic, one of several decorations which Gottschalk had the endearing habit of wearing for important recitals). In January 1853 he returned to the United States a celebrity. His acclaim as a pianist and composer had gone before him, and his success with women—he never married—did nothing to reduce his popularity. His friend the Manchester-born pianist and composer Richard Hoffman wrote: ‘His eyes were the striking features of his face, large and dark with peculiarly drooping lids, which always appeared half closed when he played. There must be some youthful grandmothers in New York today  who have experienced the charm of their magnetic albeit languorous glances.’ Gottschalk used to complain that the young girls who flocked to his concerts distracted him and made him hit wrong notes!
What sort of a pianist was he? By all accounts he was one of those natural players who never needed to practise much and who, incidentally, never had another lesson after he bade farewell to Stamaty at the age of seventeen. His speciality was brilliant rapid flights in the upper reaches of the treble with a love of repeated-note figurations, set against crisp, clear execution and a rhythmic, driving vitality. Much of his music is by no means easy to play and is frequently physically taxing. It requires an impeccable technique, a fleet, delicate touch matched with élan, charme and joie de vivre for its most effective execution.
Gottschalk’s life in America was one of constant touring, from Cuba to Canada to California. 1857 to 1862 (a period of his life about which comparatively little is known) he spent largely in South America, including the Antilles, Haiti, Puerto Rico, Jamaica, Venezuela, Martinique and Guadeloupe. (What, one wonders, were the pianos like in these places?) On this last island, living on the slopes of Mount Matouba, he lived the life of a semi-recluse with his only companion, ‘a poor lunatic whom I had met on a small island, and who had attached himself to me … my friend, whose insanity was of a mild and harmless character, fancied himself the greatest genius in the world. He was, moreover, under the impression that he suffered from a gigantic, monstrous tooth.’ This and many more compelling details are revealed in Gottschalk’s diary Notes of a Pianist, which, with those of his friend Berlioz, are quite the most fascinating musicians’ journals of the nineteenth century.
He did not return to New York until 1862 from whence he embarked on another series of recitals, a hectic schedule which he maintained for nearly three and a half years, throughout the run of the Civil War. When he arrived in San Francisco in May 1865, the Daily Alta California calculated (with the pianist’s help) that thus far he had travelled 95,000 miles on the railway and given 1100 concerts in the process. Our hero was forced to leave California, however, more hurriedly than he would have cared to. His womanizing on this occasion led to a vilification in the newspapers, a story which today’s tabloids would have lapped up: ‘Gottschalk Seduces Young Lady From Oakland Female Seminary’, the headlines would have roared. ‘Vagabond musician … should suffer death …’ was what was actually printed. Gottschalk left for South America by boat and, though his name was cleared eventually, never again returned to the United States.
The last three years of his life are chronicled intermittently. He seems to have lived mainly in Peru, Chile and Uruguay where, in February 1868, he gave sixteen concerts in Montevideo alone. He arrived in Rio de Janeiro in May 1869. Six months later he collapsed during a recital while playing his composition Morte!!. He died in December of empyema, the result of a ruptured abscess in the abdomen. He was forty years old. His remains were returned to the USA and buried in Greenwood Cemetery, Brooklyn.
Amy Fay, in her delightful letters home, published as Music Study in Germany, wrote: ‘I was dreadfully sorry to hear of poor Gottschalk’s death. He had a golden touch, and equal to any in the world, I think … if anything more is in the papers about him you must send it to me, for the infatuation that I and 99,999 other American girls once felt for him still lingers in my breast.’
It is too easy to dismiss the likes of Louis Moreau Gottschalk as second division figures of somewhat dated fun. Gottschalk was not a Great Composer. That is obvious to anyone. He himself had no aspirations to that Olympian height. He was a crowd pleaser and a very successful one. At its best, the music is intensely individual and comes off the page white hot. It has the spontaneity and immediacy of improvisation allied, with intoxicating effect, to disciplined European pianism. Gottschalk was the equivalent of one of today’s pop stars and brought to the widest public attention (did any artist before Paderewski travel so widely in America?) the syncopated rhythms of his country’s music. That promulgation was, in itself, a monumental achievement, for it paved the way for a whole wave of music that could, for the first time—thanks to Gottschalk—be called uniquely American.
Jeremy Nicholas © 1990
Other albums in this series