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What's an American?

What's an American?

New Orleans-born Louis Moreau Gottschalk crafted a sound that was surprising, eclectic, and American.

Jeffrey Gedmin

Jeffrey Gedmin's weekly newsletter on politics, culture, and music is made possible by American Purpose's generous members. Join today to receive his newsletter and other great benefits.

Our arts and culture editor Sydnee Lipset is working on a July 4 program tentatively titled, “What’s an American?” Syd has been inspired by the book A Beginner’s Guide to America: For the Immigrant and the Curious from our friend and American Purpose senior fellow Roya Hakakian.

In the early 1840s, the head of the piano division at a French conservatory decided he knew what it meant to be American: “America is only a land of steam engines!” When Louis Gottschalk applied to the distinguished music school in question, he was rejected without an audition. Chopin was more open-minded. The Polish virtuoso predicted that Gottschalk would become “king of the pianists.”

Louis Moreau Gottschalk was born on May 8, 1829, in New Orleans. His father Edward was born in London to German-Jewish parents. His mother Aimée Marie-Françoise was the daughter of French Créole refugees to New Orleans after the 1791–94 slave revolt in the French Caribbean colony of Saint-Domingue (later, Haiti).

Young Moreau, as he was called at home, was a talent. He began playing piano at three. By eleven, the boy was playing at the St. Charles Hotel. That must have been grand for the kid. The original St. Charles Hotel in New Orleans had a Grecian front capped with a large white dome, second only in size to the dome of the Capitol in Washington. From the street, a flight of marble steps led to a marble statue of George Washington. After New Orleans surrendered in the Civil War, the St. Charles Hotel was seized by Union General Benjamin Butler, who used the landmark property as his headquarters.

Gottschalk studied classical music in Europe — his father considered such training a must — which in turn caused a bit of trouble back home. In some New Orleans circles his music was deemed not properly American. Gottschalk threw people a curve by fusing classical with other influences, including Louisiana Creole.

He was an uninhibited, independent-minded soul. A Southern abolitionist who sided with the North in the Civil War, Gottschalk was shaken when he heard that Abraham Lincoln had been assassinated. He was aboard a ship sailing to California from a tour in Latin America when he received word. He wrote in his diary of Lincoln’s assassin, the actor John Wilkes Booth:

I remember having seen him play a year ago in Cleveland. I was struck at the time with the beauty of his features, and at the same time by a sinister expression in his countenance. I would even say he had something deadly in his look.

Gottschalk moved in and out of worlds. He spoke five, and by some accounts nine, languages. His Italian was good enough to read Machiavelli in the original and work with Italian opera singers and librettos. He played before Isabella II in Spain. He toured the Caribbean and South America extensively — Puerto Rico, Peru, Uruguay, Chile, Argentina, Brazil — complaining often in his diaries of badly tuned pianos or poor accommodations. He traveled numerous times to Cuba, his first visit lasting a year.

What a circle of friends and fans Gottschalk had. Pianist Franz Liszt admired the way he played. Ditto Hector Berlioz. Lincoln liked his music. So did Jefferson Davis, the Democratic Senator representing Mississippi who served as the first and only president of the Confederate States from 1861 to 1865.

Here’s patriotic music from Gottschalk, “The Union or Paraphrase de Concert on the National Airs Star-Spangled Banner, Yankee Doodle, and Hail Columbia.”

Here’s a famous Gottschalk piece, Bamboula. And here’s a piano sampling. Europeans found his music exotic. He appeals to “our restless and insatiable passion for novelty,” said Berlioz. His incorporation of Latin and African elements in his work was alluring. He was quite the showman as well, which helps explain his immense popularity during his lifetime, even if stuffy critics frowned over the composer’s unabashed eclecticism. “I admire the beautiful wherever I find it,” answered Gottschalk, “never bothering myself to demand its passport.” Here’s A Night in the Tropics.

Gottschalk never took himself too seriously. Under the name Seven Octaves — he published his compositions at times under pseudonyms — he dedicated the piece “Fairyland, Schottische de Concert” “To my dear friend L.M. Gottschalk.”

I’ve discovered — and just ordered — a book on Gottschalk by S. Frederick Starr. That’s the same Fred Starr who has written for us, the author/editor of some 20 books on Russia and the former Soviet Union, the former president of Oberlin College — and an accomplished clarinetist who founded the Louisiana Repertory Jazz Ensemble while at Tulane University in New Orleans. The New York Public Library houses Gottschalk’s diaries — he scribbled copious but often illegible notes on travels that his sister Clara helped to decipher after his death— along with 30 boxes of research material collected by Starr during work on his Gottschalk biography.

You can attend an in-person discussion of American music on May 18 by joining a program we’ve planned with the Washington, D.C., public library (West End Neighborhood Branch) and the City Choir of Washington (Erin Freeman, artistic director). Political scientist and foreign policy scholar from Catholic University Michael Kimmage — himself a former music student at Oberlin — will participate in the discussion. Keep an eye on our website for further details.

Stay tuned for details on our July 4 program “What’s an American,” including readings by Roya Hakakian and a playlist. Stayed tuned as well for a Zoom discussion with Joe Horowitz on his new novel The Marriage: The Mahlers in New York. Gustav and Alma’s years in the Big Apple were 1907 to 1911. Writes Joe, “Gustav arrived in America weakened and fatigued. His energy and idealism were aroused by the New World . . . [even if] he remained a chronic outsider.” Companion and soulmate Alma was always the restless insider.

By May 1865, the adventuresome and restless Gottschalk had logged some 95,000 miles of rail travel and an estimated 1,000 concerts across the United States and Canada. In Europe, he had performed two to three hundred concerts in France, Italy, Switzerland, Spain, and Belgium. Regarding an American tour, Gottschalk wrote in his diary:

I have given eighty-five concerts in four months and a half. I have travelled fifteen thousand miles by train. At St. Louis I gave seven concerts in six days; at Chicago, five in four days. A few weeks more in this way and I should have become an idiot! Eighteen hours a day on the railroad! Arrive at seven o’clock in the evening, eat with all speed, appear at eight o’clock before the public. The last note finished, rush quickly for my luggage, and en route until next day to recommence.

In November 1869 in Brazil, the pace finally caught up with him. Gottschalk collapsed on stage during a performance — he had contracted malaria — and died shortly thereafter in Rio de Janeiro at the young age of 40. Louis Moreau Gottschalk, the American composer and pianist, is buried in Green-wood Cemetery in Brooklyn.

Jeffrey Gedmin is co-founder and editor-in-chief of American Purpose.

Image: Promotional poster for Louis Gottschalk's farewell concerts in America before departing for Havana and Mexico, January 26, 1865, Clarry & Reilly. (U.S. Library of Congress)

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