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8.559145 - GOTTSCHALK: Piano Music

Louis Moreau Gottschalk (1829-1869): Piano Music

Louis Moreau Gottschalk (1829-1869): Piano Music

The lively musical climate in New Orleans during the early 1830s had an influence on the childhood of Louis Moreau Gottschalk. It is very likely that his knowledge of Creole music came from exposure to his household culture, the maternal influences of his grandmother and nurse. At the age of thirteen, Gottschalk sailed to Europe against his mother’s wishes, with the intent to procure the classical training he would need to achieve his musical goals. By 1845, shortly before his sixteenth birthday, his very successful formal début at the Salle Pleyel was lauded by Chopin. Following successful tours of Switzerland and Spain, the young virtuoso arrived in New York in early 1853 and gave his first concert there.

The iconoclastic compositional style of Gottschalk suggests what Chopin’s music might have been like had he spent his time in the saloons of New Orleans rather than the salons of Paris. Gottschalk had grown sceptical of European musical life, and returning to the United States was a welcome change from the cultural climate of France. For the next three years he travelled extensively throughout North America in order to earn a living. Gottschalk acquired the responsibility of supporting his seven younger siblings and an eccentric mother, now all settled in Paris following his father’s death in 1853. By 1857 he had tired of the concert touring pace and left for Havana to tour with the great Adelina Patti.

By the end of the 1850s Gottschalk had settled in Guadalupe, reducing his concert tour responsibilities and devoting himself to composing. In 1860, he returned to Cuba to co-ordinate several festivals with varying degrees of success. As 1862 started, the Civil War had begun and he could not remain in pro-Secessionist Cuba. He again established himself, therefore, as a major figure in American life. An ardent Unionist, he toured throughout the North giving thousands of concerts throughout the war-torn East and into the Midwest. Sheet music of his piano works sold millions of copies. By September 1865, his concert schedule took him to California, where he was erroneously accused in a sexual scandal involving a student. He immediately fled to South America, but not in time for his friends who were able to clear his name.

Gottschalk spent his final four years in South America enjoying successful tours. His activities with public education played an important role in the development of classical music, as he became the first, and one of the few pan-American cultural figures. His death in 1869 was most likely a result of an overdose of quinine from an unconfirmed illness that had plagued him several months earlier.

In his brief lifetime, Louis Moreau Gottschalk had come full circle. Towards the end of his career he had again become what he had been as a very young man: a representative of his country. His role as possibly the first cultural figure with a reputation throughout the Americas was recognised in A Semana Illustrada on 8th August, 1869: "Such visits are worth more than those of certain political notables and a dozen newspapers subsidised and dispersed around this world".

Gottschalk’s piano miniatures, of which there are more than one hundred, defy comparison with the works of other nineteenth-century composers. The dates of composition of the works heard here are dispersed throughout the first five of his six periods of composition, ranging from 1846, the Parisian period, up to 1863, the American period. Cynics of his day complained that he performed only his own music, with its earthy banjo and Caribbean strains. Theodore Hagen of The Review and the World, politely suggested that Gottschalk, given his "natural capacity for technics" should perform some of the simpler classics of Bach and Clementi in addition to certain minor compositions of Chopin and Weber. By way of contrast, Gottschalk’s piano works exhibit a Romantic keyboard technique much admired by Chopin and an appealing New World sense of adventure alongside the vernacular melodies of New Orleans streets, South American dance halls and North American music halls.

Le banjo is a virtuoso piece spun around folk-style themes where Foster’s Camptown Races can be heard at its heart. The work combines the realistic intent of folk banjo techniques with traditional European classicism. Bamboula is a remarkable composition from the Parisian period. The work was inspired by the popular melody of Quan’ patate la cuite and became a signature tune of a generation. The composer opted for a more catchy title and wrote the work in three sections, a form seen in his later works.

Le bananier, a Creole fantasy, was based upon the popular march, En avan’ Grenadie. This seemingly simple and short work interpolates skilful runs and touches of modernistic colour. La savane followed Le bananier as the second Creole genre piece, and is based upon the song Lolotte pov’piti Lolette. The melody was unrecorded until Gottschalk placed it into this composition, which also closely resembles an interpretation of Skip to My Lou.

As a departure from the use of folk idioms, Gottschalk devoted himself to composing a group of works strictly rooted in classicism. Tremolo is one such piece, inspired by a work of the Belgian violinist Charles-August de Bériot. La jota aragonesa was composed during Gottschalk’s first visit to Cuba in 1853. The critics were delighted with this Spanish-inspired piece as the composer interwove original pieces with Spanish national songs.

Manchega dates from the Spanish tour. On his route to Córdoba, Gottschalk passed through La Mancha county and was intrigued by the driving rhythms of the region. Also composed during the Spanish tour is Souvenirs d’Andalousie, with its typical bolero rhythm. The piece combined a collection of Spanish themes into a single work and featured a fandango.

Souvenir de Porto Rico foresaw musical development decades ahead of its time, with glimpses of Berlioz. The piece is infused with syncopations and harmonic relationships that relate more closely to twentieth-century ragtime and jazz. As in Bamboula, the piece begins on a cadence but departs by ending on a cadence and is based upon Afro-Caribbean rhythms. Gottschalk’s first concert tour of the United States began in 1853 and concluded in 1856, with a series of engagements in New York. The programmes included the première of the romantic mazurka, La scintilla. Based upon a Cuban dance, La gallina incorporates the use of unresolved dissonance.

Both Suis-moi and Pasquinade were composed while Gottschalk was in Havana. Here, the composer no longer felt the competitive tug of European virtuosity and created a series of interesting works, including the native Havana melody of Suis-moi! and the novel gavotte of Pasquinade which foresees the birth of ragtime and jazz. Tournament Galop was originally entitled Gran galop de bravura, the former version being the perfect example of brilliance. The Dying Poet is the most famous work of the Civil War era and remained so for forty years. The Chopinesque melody exemplifies highly expressive techniques and genuine heartfelt emotion of the day. The concluding work, The Union, was a musical declaration of Gottschalk’s patriotism. It was first performed in 1862, contained elements of the yet-undeclared national anthem and was dedicated to the head of the Union Forces.

C 2003 Ileen Zovluck

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