Louis Moreau Gottschalk: The First Gershwin

Copyright © by Fred Flaxman, 1997.


George Gershwin, as great and as original as he was, was not the first American composer to combine Afro-American rhythms with classical forms. The "first Gershwin" - Louis Moreau Gottschalk (1829-1869) - was born 69 years earlier in New Orleans. Like Gershwin, Gottschalk wrote hundreds of catchy, short tunes for the piano and needed the help of others to orchestrate his very few longer-form pieces.

Like Gershwin, who was influenced by the jazz of his era, Gottschalk was attracted to the pre-jazz Creole music of his native city and the Afro-Caribbean tunes of the islands he explored for five years.

Both Gershwin and Gottschalk shared a Jewish heritage, as well. Gottschalk's father, a stockbroker, was born in England. His strikingly beautiful mother was related to the French aristocracy, or at least pretended to be.

The young Gottschalk began to play the piano at the age of 3. He was only 12, 13 or 14 (depending on which source you believe) when his parents sent him more than 3000 miles away to Paris, then the center of the musical world, to study piano and composition - no small adventure for a teenager 153 years ago. There he was refused admission to the Paris Conservatory. The director claimed that America "could produce nothing but steam engines."

He took private lessons, and rapidly became the artistic and social rage of the continent. He spent more than a decade in Europe, where, according to the program notes by Wilfrid Mellers which accompany the Nimbus CD of Gottschalk's Piano Music for Four Hands (NI 5324), he "hobnobbed with the socially high and mighty, but also earned the admiration of artists of the calibre of Chopin, Liszt and Berlioz."

Mellers writes that Gottschalk prospered "because he inherited his mother's fabulous good-looks" and was "culturally well-groomed, spoke impeccable French, and was fluent in English, Spanish, Italian and German." He also learned fencing, horsemanship, dancing and Greek.

Like Liszt, Gottschalk was both a ladykiller (which was later to get him into great trouble), and an extraordinary pianist (which was to bring him international fame). He was also to become an excellent writer, and Mellers says "his vivacity and high intelligence are manifest in every page of his autobiographical Notes of a Pianist," which recount his international travels. "Few writings by a composer afford such delight."

After Paris, Gottschalk toured the rest of Europe with great success, and returned to the U.S. a musical celebrity in 1853. His success as a lady's man also made the trans-Atlantic crossing, causing him to complain that the young girls who flocked to his concerts distracted him and made him play the wrong notes.

Gottschalk toured constantly, from Cuba to Canada, from New York to California. But, from 1857 to 1862, he dropped out of the concert scene entirely and bummed his way around South America and the Antilles, Haiti, Puerto Rico, Jamaica, Martinique and Guadeloupe.

When he returned to the U.S. he embarked on yet another grueling, cross-country tour, averaging one recital a day for nearly three-and-a-half years, throughout the Civil War. Although a Southerner, Gottschalk was against slavery and freed the three slaves he owned. He felt that the American Union was "one of the most beautiful of political monuments," and opposed its dissolution. He sometimes performed close to the battlefields, where he would play his patriotic piece, The Union.

When he arrived in San Francisco in May 1865, he calculated that he had travelled 95,000 miles on the railway and given 1100 concerts. But he was forced to leave California abruptly after a newspaper accused him of seducing a young lady from the Oakland Female Seminary. The paper said that the "vagabond musician...should suffer death."

Gottschalk quickly boarded a boat for South America, never again to return to the U.S., though his name was cleared eventually. After three years in Peru, Chile and Uruguay, he arrived in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in May, 1869. Six months later he collapsed during a recital while playing his own composition, Morte. He died before the end of the year, at age 40.

Gottschalk had started composing piano pieces by the time he reached Paris, and, from the very start, his work was stimulated by what Mellers calls "the cultural ragbag" of New Orleans - a mixture of "French quadrille and vaudeville, Italian romantic opera, Spanish tango and habanera, African-derived Negro rag, and sundry Creole hybrids between the elitist and the populist."

This multicultural input resulted in an exciting, melodious, rythmic, romantic, highly-accessible output. Or, to put it more simply, Gottschalk's music is delightful. It's light, pure, unmitigated fun. I can't understand why it isn't better known, and why you hear it so rarely performed in concerts or on the radio.

His lively and short dances for piano make ideal wake-up and drive-time music, and leave plenty of time for time-checks, news and weather. His first symphony, A Night in the Tropics, should be part of the basic repertoire of American orchestras, as should the Hershy Kay arrangement of his Grand Tarantelle for Piano and Orchestra.

In the meantime, you can at least listen to these thoroughly entertaining, tuneful pieces on compact discs. The superb 1962 recording by the Utah Symphony Orchestra conducted by Maurice Abravanel has been reissued by Vanguard Classics (OVC 4051). It features Reid Nibley as the pianist in the Grand Tarantelle, and Harry Truman's favorite pianist, Eugene List, in Gottschalk's pieces for one piano, four hands. Gottschalk's music for solo piano, recorded by List in 1956, was reissued by Vanguard Classics (OVC 4050), and includes an excellent collection of the best of Louis Moreau Gottschalk.

Although the two Vanguard CDs are based on analog recordings, the sound is very good, which is much more than I can say for the all-digital recording of the Piano Music for Four Hands performed by Alan Marks and Nerine Barrett on Nimbus. Those performances sound as though they were recorded in an empty, indoor swimming pool.

For the best sound and the most-sound-for-your-money, I recommend the two digital CDs of Gottchalk's Piano Music played by Philip Martin, issued by Hyperion (CDA66459 and CDA66697). They clock in at almost 71 minutes and almost 75 minutes respectively. But there are some 13 other CDs of Gottschalk's piano music to choose from now. Buy one, and the next time you hear Gershwin referred to as the first truly American composer of classical music, you'll know that it's Gottschalk who really deserves the honor.


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