About this Recording
8.559693 - GOTTSCHALK, L.M.: Piano Music - A Night in the Tropics (S. Mayer)

Louis Moreau Gottschalk (1829–1869)
A Night in the Tropics: Solo Piano Music


Some of the most commonly known facts regarding Louis Moreau Gottschalk include his having brought classical piano music to mid-nineteenth-century America, his having composed music that appealingly reflected aspects of the cultures of the Americas and sometimes anticipated ragtime, and his having been caught up in a personal scandal that necessitated a sudden departure from the United States to South America, where he later died. Less often spoken of is Gottschalk’s enormous debt to the greatest of all piano composers, Frédéric Chopin, whom he met and played for while living in Paris as a youth. While outwardly Gottschalk’s life may have resembled that of the young Franz Liszt—the solo piano tours, the audience adulation—inside the composer remained loyal to an aesthetic quite close to that of Chopin, and one that was in some respects in opposition to that of Liszt.

The question of the essence of Gottschalk continues today, for while his piano works look and feel to be influenced by Chopin, much of the ever-increasing Gottschalk discography emphasizes an interpretive bent pointing more in the direction of Liszt. Speaking of the Parisian musical scene in the 1840s, the time of young Gottschalk’s first trip to Europe, the pianist Charles Hallé spoke of “the three mighty heroes” of the piano, Chopin, Thalberg and Liszt. Of these, Gottschalk considered Chopin to be of the first rank, followed by Thalberg, and then by Liszt. Gottschalk writes: “[In Liszt’s compositions] we see the constant effort of one seeking to hide the sterility of his ideas beneath the mantle of the unusual, the eccentric and the obscure.” And later, “[Liszt] piles up difficulty upon difficulty, as if he wishes only to defy other pianists.” By contrast, Gottschalk speaks of Chopin glowingly, as possessing delicacy, reserve and sensitivity.

Louis Moreau Gottschalk was born in New Orleans to a Haitian Creole mother and a Jewish father of English origin. At fourteen he was sent to France and soon enjoyed great popularity, both for his compositions and piano playing. He received praise from both Chopin and Berlioz. Though denied admission to the Paris Conservatoire because its director seemed biased against any American daring to strive to be an important musical artist, Gottschalk persevered, returning to America a full ten years later, after many triumphs in France and Spain.

Once back on American soil, he began a profitable career as a touring pianist, at one point even turning down an offer from P.T. Barnum, the famed circus creator. He documented much of his life and his travels to the frontiers of the mid-nineteenth-century United States in his memoirs, which remain sophisticated and insightful reading to the present day. Though a Southerner, he opposed slavery and supported Union causes tirelessly.

Gottschalk is regarded by many musicologists as being the first important American composer to combine European pianistic craftsmanship with elements of the cultures of the Americas such as the music of slaves, folk tunes, patriotic airs and Latin American dances. Elements in his music may be said to anticipate ragtime and Harlem Stride Piano in their syncopation and particular pianistic scoring.

A thorough look at Gottschalk’s approximately 150 piano pieces does indeed show Chopin’s great influence. Pieces like Fantôme de bonheur (Illusions perdues) and Reflets du passé clearly reflect Chopin’s waltzes and nocturnes, as do many others of Gottschalk’s smaller scale works. While a delicacy and wistfulness consistent with the Polish master’s pieces is quite evident, there exists in Gottschalk a heart-on-the-sleeve emotionality that seems more American—perhaps Gottschalk’s take on a European aesthetic. This special quality in Gottschalk, one that led him to write such wonderfully expressive and extroverted pieces as Le Banjo and Pasquinade, does not negate a delicacy and refinement—as well as a lack of Lisztian excess—consistent with the music of Chopin.

Where Berceuse may be influenced by the work of the same title by Chopin, what can one say of the glittery virtuosity of Grande Fantaisie triomphale sur l’hymne national brésilien, or the pianistic high jinks of Pasquinade and Le Banjo? Interestingly, what sometimes leaves the greatest impression when one hears the last three works is not the glitter, but the core of what Gottschalk expresses in each piece—the special character of each “subject” at hand. The almost heartbreaking, hushed sweetness of The Last Hope, the hypnotic mini-world of Le Songe d’une nuit d’été, the grandeur of La Nuit des tropiques—all seem to be in keeping with a desire to emphasize substance over mere pianistic rhetoric. It is as if Gottschalk was himself so original that he could “show off” pianistically, yet still write music that did not seem to place instrumental effect over musical substance. Perhaps as an idolized performer Gottschalk was under pressure to meet a certain “entertainment quota” that his audiences expected of him. But he once said that as a composer he knew he was “capable of better”. And the beauty and harmonic ingenuity of La Nuit des tropiques, and others of his works, attests to this fact.

The essence of Gottschalk’s aesthetic is indeed delicate and refined, but also uniquely vital and original. And in the end, it is really no less challenging for pianists to interpret Gottschalk’s music idiomatically than it is for them to properly interpret the works of Gottschalk’s most important role model—Chopin.

Le Banjo is so original, so American and so effective that a decent performance of it given anywhere in the world practically guarantees success. It combines banjo-like effects, such as repeated notes as well as guitar-like strumming that became popular at the time of Gottschalk’s childhood in New Orleans, with a non-modulatory bass and an infectious motoric drive. Quotations from Stephen Foster’s Camptown Races at the opening, and in the coda, heighten the work’s wit and charm.

During the second half of the nineteenth century The Last Hope was Gottschalk’s best-selling published composition. Four different Protestant hymns which later took its main theme now exist. The manner in which Gottschalk’s lovely melody is surrounded by deep harmonic support and stratospheric angel-like flourishes above creates an almost celestial calm.

Pasquinade is one of Gottschalk’s finest pieces. Suggesting the French gavotte, its sunny mood and proud strut, combined with its delicate pianistic intricacies, creates a delicious musical morsel.

Chopin’s Berceuse must have been well-known to Gottschalk. While Chopin’s composition of this title is pianistically more ornate, Gottschalk’s achieves an equally hypnotic mood by layering three pianistic registers simultaneously, giving the effect of three hands playing at once. A gentler and more peaceful composition has rarely be seen.

Grande Fantaisie triomphale sur l’hymne national brésilien is Gottschalk’s ode to his adoptive final home. Popular with Brazilian pianists to the present day, it was composed in 1869, the year of Gottschalk’s death. Its basis is an anthem with a tune more operatic than patriotic, though Gottschalk does not miss the opportunity to create “martial” effects in some spots. Two of the variations may be said to anticipate piano music of the Harlem Stride period of the 1920s, with their continuous left-hand jumps.

Gottschalk was a friend of the French opera composer Ambroise Thomas, adapter of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Le Songe d’une nuit d’été). Gottschalk bases this short transcription on an aria from Thomas’ opera, creating an intoxicating sound-world in the piano’s upper registers.

Illusions perdues is the subtitle of Fantôme de bonheur, and better describes the mood of the piece than does its actual title. Wistful and melancholic, the gently repeated right-hand pedal point notes seem like the falling of a light rain, creating a palpable sense of ennui. The recurrent passages with descending sixths in the right hand can be seen to depict falling tears, as well. A middle section may have its origin in a similar spot in Chopin’s famous C sharp minor waltz, and Gottschalk’s coda conveys a true sense of pathos.

Equally affecting is the beautifully set opening theme of Reflets du passé, which combines a sense of longing and of resignation. A short series of harmonic shifts usher in a concluding, gently undulating waltz, which ends with nine soft chime-like strokes.

Today, the title La Nuit des tropiques sometimes refers to the two-movement Symphonie romantique of the same title, which includes a large scale opening movement followed by a samba-like finale entitled Fiesta criolla. Gottschalk, however, originally intended the title La Nuit des tropiques to refer only to the opening movement, which tells a story of a serene night in the Antilles, a thunderstorm and its peaceful, shimmering aftermath. Perhaps, partly because this programmatic work was one of Gottschalk’s first attempts at a big-scale composition, the composer plumbed his own depths to come up with not just lovely themes but also harmonic innovation. Sadly, the only extant solo piano transcription of this major work, one by Artur Napoleau, a contemporary of Gottschalk’s during the composer’s time in Brazil, expurgates an entire section of the piece—one which contains music as harmonically innovative as any Gottschalk ever wrote. For this reason I have made sure to include the formerly omitted material in my own transcription, the present recording of which contains no over-dubbing to reproduce all the orchestral parts. Instead, I have tried to use the “three handed effect” originally made famous by Thalberg in his opera transcriptions, and later used subtly, but frequently, by Gottschalk. It is my belief that a work as substantive as La Nuit des tropiques need not remain solely in the orchestral repertoire, but also be able to be experienced through Gottschalk’s most beloved medium—the solo piano.

Steven Mayer

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