The Life and Times of
Louis Moreau Gottschalk
* 8 May 1829 in New Orleans
+ 18 Dec 1869 in Tijuca (Brazil)
Born in New Orleans in 1829, Louis Moreau Gottschalk grew up in a neighbourhood where he was exposed to the Creole music with its African-Caribbean rhythms and the melodious folk songs that would later become a characteristic ingredient of much of his own music. The house where he was born still stands at the southwest corner of Esplanade and Royal streets in New Orleans, and it was from this rather unassuming place that his brilliant career started -- a career that would eventually spur him on to international fame.
Some of his past biographers have taken the idea of his childhood home as the “geographical centre” of his musical inspiration quite literally. Vernon Loggins, for example, describes vividly how young Gottschalk would listen to the music that filled the streets of New Orleans in the 1830s at many of the ubiquitous Sunday afternoon public dances held by slaves across the city. Loggins even paints the picture of Gottschalk dancing on the third-floor gallery of his home on Rampart street where he lived with his parents from 1831-1833: “Always at that hour [he] was up on the third-floor gallery listening for the first sound of the drums. As soon as the beats fell into a steady rhythm he began to march. Louder and faster the beats grew, and the boy’s march turned into a dance. . . As the hundreds of (dancers) sang, the dancing boy sang too. Over and over he would repeat the melody, until his mother would come, pick him up, carry him into the nursery, and lay him on his bed. In an instant he would be sound asleep.”
The general musical climate of New Orleans may have played its role during Gottschalk´s childhood, but is seems unlikely that little Louis-Moreau, at age two, picked up his extensive knowledge of Creole music by dancing on the gallery to the sounds of Sunday afternoon dances, or, as his biographer S. Frederick Starr puts it, “by hanging on the fence of Congo square as a spectator” (Congo Square with its many musical gatherings being, at the time, the major dissemination point for West Indian and Afro-American culture in New Orleans). Rather, he was exposed to the music also within the household; via his Grandmother Buslé and his nurse Sally, both of whom were natives of Saint-Domingue.
However, none of this is to suggest that Gottschalk´s later work was derivative: When he borrowed from traditional sources he did so openly and acknowledged his sources, and at any rate such occasional “quotations” are outweighed by his playful inventiveness and creativity. An example of this is his informal début at the (then) new St. Charles Hotel in 1840, at a time when despite his numerous recitals in salons of wealthy New Orleans households he had not yet performed in public concerts. The programme described Gottschalk as “a young Creole” and his début already foreshadowed his later work: Taking a Latin dance tune and performing a series of variations on the tune, thus combining the popularity of the tune and subjecting it to a very Gottschalkian treatment, he charmed the audience, and the début became an instant success.
In 1842 he left the United States and sailed to Europe, realizing that a classical training would be required to achieve his musical goals. While such professionalism in a 13-year old would normally be the result of the parents´ ambitions, it is clear from Gottschalk´s letters, that he himself was the driving force. In a letter to his mother, for example, he wrote that “I definitely expect that in two years or perhaps less I shall be earning a living on my own.” In Europe, however, Gottschalk had a rather bumpy start, as the Conservatoire in Paris rejected his application. For this reason, Gottschalk had to study privately with Karl Hallé, Camille-Marie Stamaty and Pierre Malenden (the latter teaching composition). In the years to follow, despite the initial rejection by the musical establishment, he built a first career as a pianist virtuoso, prompting Frédéric Chopin to predict that Gottschalk would soon become one of the foremost pianists of the century.
Despite his success in Europe, Gottschalk was skeptical of European musical life. He ridiculed the cult of the genius, and the grotesque idiosyncracies developed by some of his European fellow pianists. Franz Liszt, for example, he called the “Alcibiades of the piano”, characterizing him furthers as “devoured by a thirst for glory.” Commenting on Liszt´s “long hair”, he remarked that this “came to be the symbol of the art for [Liszt´s] numerous adepts. There was no romantic who did not wear his hair long and there are today some who have none of Liszt´s talents except the hair!”
It is interesting to note that (young) Gottschalk seems to have been slightly prejudiced against Northern Europe, and Germany in particular, since during his time in Europe he never performed there. A possible reason is that his father, Edward Gottschalk, lived in Germany and England in his youth and studied at the University of Leipzig, Germany. Since relations with his father were at best businesslike, it is quite possible that, in his early years, he tried to avoid following in his father´s footsteps. Later in life, he reached out to German communities in South America and also pressed his sister Clara to try to get his compositions published with the German company Schott & Söhne in Mainz.
In 1853, Gottschalk returned to the United States, possibly trying to escape an environment that he regarded as being dominated by egotism and vanity. Re-adjusting to American culture seems to have been accompanied by some problems (and, typically for Gottschalk, by rather caustic criticism on his side, culminating in remarks such as “New Jersey is the poorest place in the world to give concerts, except Central Africa...”), and in the years to come he would travel extensively throughout the United States and Canada to earn a living. In 1854 he also spent an extensive period of time in Cuba, his musical interest gradually shifting towards Central and South America.
In the 1860s, he had established himself again as a major figure in American musical life, partly as a result of tremendous hard work -- as is evident from his travel schedule which, at one point in 1862, included 85 concerts (all at different locations) in just four and a half months. What life under such pressure was like is best summed up by the following remark in Gottschalk´s diaries: “Arrived half past eight at the hotel, took in a hurry a cup of bad tea, and away to business. One herring for dinner! nine hours on the train! and, in spite of everything, five hundred persons who have paid that you may give them two hours of poesy, of passion, and of inspiration. I confess to you secretly that they certainly will be cheated this evening.”
In September 1865, his career took a sharp turn when Gottschalk had to leave the United States after a scandal about his relationship with a student at Oakland Female Seminary. Gottschalk left the country, embarking on what would become his last (and perhaps most successful) tour, during the course of which he travelled to Santiago de Chile, Buenos Aires, and Rio de Janeiro (and many other less well-known locations). His concerts were tremendously successful all across South America and sometimes took the form of “monster concerts” involving up to 650 performers.
Louis Moreau Gottschalk died Saturday, December 18, 1869, in Tijuca (Brazil), three weeks after collapsing during one his concerts, just when he had finished playing his sorrowful “Morte!!” and was about to begin moving on to the next piece.
(c) 2001 by Axel Gelfert