Louis Moreau Gottschalk was a pioneer of American music, one of our first truly national celebrities and a beloved citizen of the Western Hemisphere. Frederick Starr’s 1995 biography is a work of sweeping scholarship, all the more impressive for its lucid and engaging style.
Gottschalk was born in 1829 in New Orleans to a French Creole mother from the Caribbean island of Saint-Domingue and a Jewish father with roots in northern Europe. By the time he died at the age of 40 in Rio de Janeiro, he and his music were known worldwide. Educated in Paris, Gottschalk was the disciple and peer of the major Romantic musicians, writers and artists of his time, including Berlioz, Liszt, Chopin, Dumas, Hugo and Longfellow. After Chopin’s death, Gottschalk was hailed as the greatest pianist in the world.
As a teenager, Gottschalk began his career as a piano virtuoso in France, where virtuosos and savants were all the rage. His debut was attended by Chopin, Thalberg and other Paris musical luminaries, shortly before the Revolution swept Paris and the rest of France. He also began composing his own works at this time, and was established as a composer and virtuoso performer before entering his 20s.
Following successful tours of Switzerland and Spain, Gottschalk returned to America in 1852, where he became one of the chief figures in the beginnings of the great debate over the nature of American music in relation to European music. Gottschalk’s music and performances became emblematic of the conflict between monarachy and democracy, as reflected in classical and modern, European and American musical styles.
Although he was educated in Paris, the center of European and Classical art, Gottschalk’s roots were in multicultural New Orleans. Like Chopin, Liszt and other Romantic composers who drew on the folk styles of Europe for some of their works, Gottschalk incorporated Creole and other Caribbean influences, as well as American folk idioms in his compositions.
After establishing himself in New York and making a triumphal return to his hometown, Gottschalk toured and played in Cuba, where he picked up numerous local dance-music styles with which to color his music. Back in New York, he fell in with the Bohemian crowd and had a love affair with Ada Clare, one of the top actresses of the day. When Clare continued to publicly pursue Gottschalk after his ardor cooled, he left again for the Caribbean, where he stayed for five years, returning to an America in the midst of Civil War.
He toured ceaselessly all over the North during the war, from Chicago to New York, giving thousands of concerts throughout the war-torn East and into the Midwest. Sheet music of his compositions for piano sold in the millions, preparing the ground for the arrival of ragtime and jazz some 50 years later. He performed in tiny halls in whistle-stop towns and in Lincoln’s White House, as well as highbrow salons and opera houses of New York and Boston.
After the war, Gottschalk conquered California, but fled to South America in the midst of a sexual scandal. He was welcomed enthusiastically in Peru, Chile, Uruguay, Argentina and Brazil, and was planning a return to New York when he died of a ruptured appendix shortly before Christmas in 1869.
Starr’s research for this biography appears to have been exhaustive, involving papers and records on three continents and in several languages. The entire book is laced with rich historic and sociologic detail of life in Europe, South America and the U.S. in the early and middle years of the 19th Century. Of the conditions under which Gottschalk traveled and performed during the Civil War years, he notes:
“Train schedules more rational on paper than in reality, hotels that imposed various forms of torture on their guests, abominable food, and auditoriums run by entrepreneurs whose avarice reflected their anxiety — these were the backstage realities of America’s emerging national market.”
Starr is an unapolagetic champion of Gottschalk. But he is unafraid to examine all the negatives in the man’s art and his character, and still finds his subject worthy. Now that we’re in an era when an artist’s works can be appreciated apart from his private life, Starr successfully argues for Gottschalk’s place among the pantheon of American composers and artists. An understanding of Gottschalk is important to any student of American serious and popular music, and Starr’s book is a definitive statement on the subject. Louis Moreau Gottschalk has a place in the library of any lover of American music and history.
(University of Illinois Press, 1995; trade paper edition 2000)