Call him a virtuoso or a pioneer in popular music, Louis Moreau Gottschalk is possibly the first and the last pan-American composer to walk the earth. In a comparatively short life cut short by diseases and death, he achieved what others would have achieved in 60 or 70 years. A person who always took pride in being called an American, Gottschalk achieved the kind of appreciation in Europe, which no other American had attained until then. The thunderous applause and admiration, which followed his music, was never given to any American before. What makes the feats and accomplishments even more incredible is that he received them at a young age of just 21. Though controversies played its part, Gottschalk did not restrict his music to America. He extensively travelled all over the South American countries and Caribbean islands, incorporating everything that came his way — be it critical judgments, local influences or musical traditions. He laid an irrefutable influence on New Orleans music, consequently contributing into jazz and its origins.
Louis Moreau Gottschalk’s Early Life And Childhood
Gottschalk was born to a Jewish businessman from London and a Creole mother on May 8, 1928, in New Orleans. He had six brothers and sisters, five of them were his half siblings – children who were born to his father from a mulatto mistress. Even as a child, Gottschalk displayed extraordinary talent in piano. This greatly impressed his parents and they hired a teacher named Letellier to provide a base for the early studies of this budding musician. He started learning violin at the age of 6 from Mr. Ely. At the age of 8, Gottschalk gave his first public performance to help pianist Mr. Miolau who fell into hard times. With the concert becoming a huge success, Miolau along with some of his colleagues went to Gottschalk’s home to congratulate the young achiever. In 1840, he had his first public appearance in St. Charles Hotel in New Orleans, which was also largely successful. In May 1842, Louis departed to Paris to attend a private school, which was run by Mr. Dussart, as his father thought that classical training was essential to fulfil his son’s musical ambitions. Though Paris conservatoire at first rejected his application, Gottschalk gradually attained access to the musical establishment through family friends. There he met his fellow mates Charles Halle, Camille Marie Stamaty, Friedrich Kalkbrenner and Felix Mendelssohn. Gottschalk took Paris by storm when he made his debut in 1845. Personalities like Frederic Chopin predicted an excellent future for him and Hector Berlioz spoke of his ‘exquisite grace, brilliant originality, charming simplicity and thundering energy’.
Starting his career as a performer in the private salons of Paris as a teenager, his progress to the public stages in the city was immense. There, he was hailed as equal to one of the best pianists of his time. Building up a reputation as a first rate virtuoso, he toured extensively to France, Switzerland and Spain. After having spent almost eleven years in Europe, he returned to United States in 1853.
Upon returning United States, Gottschalk expected to become full-fledged artist. His debut in United States was well received where he was compared to Beethoven. However, in less than a year, his world went upside down. His father passed away leaving behind considerable amount of debt along with six siblings and mother to support. This mental stress deteriorated the quality of his works. He was forced to write potboilers and the freshness and the impulse of his works eroded as he began to give concerts on a daily basis. Most of the concerts were done by travelling endlessly all round the state, which hardly merited his skills. He soon found out that his concerts barely drew any audience and became an open target of some American critics who openly targeted his compositions.
To put simply, some American critics felt that it was time for an American cultural identity to be free of European influence while others basked on the achievements of European composers, especially of the German school. Thus, when Gottschalk constructed his programs mainly from his own compositions, he unintentionally became a test case for controversy. The supporters of Gottschalk, however, credited him for being a unique American composer with his Louisiana Creole in some of his compositions, which permanently stamped him as an American. As per his detractors, his music did not match their European ideal and considered his reluctance to perform the classics as irreverence. The emotional stress that he received from his career and personal life at this time was so hard that it affected his health and mental stamina. This resulted in him eventually withdrawing from the concert stage. In order to meet the growing demand for music, he composed salon pieces.
However, time enabled Gottschalk to recover from these setbacks and his reputation as a performer increased to such a degree that by 1860, he established himself as a renowned pianist in the New World. The success was mainly the result of his tremendous hard work and extensive tour. At one point, in 1862, he did as many as 85 concerts (all at different locations) in just four and a half months. However, some of his works were criticised as trivial and of no importance. The piano pieces, ‘Last Hope’ and ‘Pasquinade’ are the most popular ones among his works. He also penned numerous pieces for piano among which are a series of salon pieces and variations such as ‘Le Bananier’, ‘Souvenir de Porto Rico’, ‘Bamboula’, ‘The Dying Poet’ and ‘The Banjo’.
Though a native of New Orleans, Gottschalk was an ardent supporter of Union cause during the American civil war. He never hesitated to introduce himself as New Orleans though he visited his native city, occasionally for concerts. However, his life took a sharp turn when he was hit by a scandal with a female student at the Oakland Female Seminary in Oakland, California. Thus, Gottschalk was forced to leave United States for a tour which became his last and perhaps, the most successful. For a time span of almost 6 years, he travelled extensively to countries like Cuba, which was followed by trips to Central and South America. His concerts were tremendously successful all over South America. Sometimes, it took the form of monster concerts, which involves up to 650 performers. He never returned to the United States. Gottschalk’s concerts inspired phenomenal enthusiasm. He also organised enormous festivals, which includes thousands of musicians receiving booming ovations from the public.
During his largest festival in Rio de Janeiro in Brazil on November 24, 1869, his ‘Marche Triomphale’ aroused tremendous enthusiasm among the crowd. Down by Malaria, his health condition was already weak. Soon after he completed his romantic masterpiece ‘Morte’ (Inferred as ‘she is dead’), and before he could finish the next concert, he collapsed.
Gottschalk never recovered from that collapse as three weeks later, on December 18, 1869, he passed away at the age of 40, at his hotel in Tijuca, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. His remains were buried at Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, New York in United States.
Gottschalk wrote innumerable works for piano and orchestra. Some of his popular works are:
- The Dying Poet
- The Last Hope
- Le Bananier
- Souvenir de Porto Rico
- The Banjo
Louis Moreau Gottschalk left behind a great legacy which no American composer had achieved before. It was for the first time that the Americans got a composer of their own, on whom the whole of Europe showered praise. He was the first and the last pan-American artist whose influence on Jazz music and its origins remains unique.