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Music in the Nineteenth Century


CHAPTER 7 Self and Other
Richard Taruskin

A composer whose career began very much like Chopin's, but later diverged owing to his failure to attain a comparable level of social prestige, was Louis Moreau Gottschalk (1829–69), a native of New Orleans who was the first American-born composer to make his mark within the European tradition of fine-art music. His father, London-born and Leipzig-educated, was a prosperous merchant from a highly assimilated (possibly converted) German-Jewish family like Mendelssohn's; his mother, a skilled amateur pianist and operatic singer, was the daughter of a celebrated French Creole baker who had fled to Louisiana as a refugee from the Haitian slave revolts of the 1790s. His socially ambitious parents identified wholeheartedly with European high culture and brought up their children in an atmosphere effectively shielded from the local popular culture by a well-developed salon and opera-house network. As soon as their gifted son had received his basic training from the local cathedral organist, he was packed off to Paris, aged thirteen, for finishing.

Gottschalk was an extraordinarily precocious talent. Before he turned sixteen he gave a recital at which he played Chopin's E-minor Concerto before an audience that included Chopin himself, who paid enthusiastic respects backstage and (according to Gottschalk) declared him the future “king of pianists.”35 Yet like the young Chopin before him, Gottschalk found he could not break through to real recognition from the European public except as an exotic—which is what turned him, very much against the current of his upbringing, into an American (or, more precisely, a Louisiana Creole) nationalist.

In quick succession he published three sets of bravura variations—Bamboula, danse des nègres, op. 2; La savane, ballade créole, op. 3; Le bananier (“The banana tree”), chanson nègre, op. 4—that have been aptly dubbed a “Louisiana trilogy” by Gilbert Chase,36 a leading musical Americanist. They established for him a reputation, at age nineteen, of being (in the words of an enraptured Paris reviewer) a rude prodigy who composed “wild, languishing, indescribable” things that bore “no resemblance to any other European music.”37

America Joins In

fig. 7-7 Louis Moreau Gottschalk, wood engraving after a drawing by Henry Louis Stephens, published in Vanity Fair, 11 October 1862.

Although French was his first language, Gottschalk was not really a Creole, since he descended only on his mother's side from French settlers. Nor, despite his own testimony (accepted by his early biographers), is there any reason to assume that his “Louisiana trilogy” was based on exotic memories from his childhood. La savane (“The savannah”), for example, which bears the Chopinesque designation ballade, was supposedly inspired by a legend that the live oaks in the swamps surrounding New Orleans had grown up out of the skeletons of runaway slaves. According to his program note, the boy Gottschalk heard this legend from his governess, a mulatto slave girl named Sally, who punctuated her narrative with snatches of the mournful slave song on which the bravura variations are based. French audiences were not likely to notice that this so-called slave song was a minor-mode variant of “Skip to My Lou, My Darling,” an old English dance tune that is still an American nursery staple.

But even if Gottschalk's “Creole” music was no more authentic than this, the piano style in which he couched it did give his music a convincingly personal imprint (hence authentic in another, perhaps more important sense), and one that proved unexpectedly fertile in America. The startlingly original Bamboula, apparently composed in 1844–45 when Gottschalk, aged just fifteen, was recovering from an attack of typhoid fever, was issued by the Paris publisher Escudier in 1849. The title is supposedly the name, in New Orleans black patois, of an African-style drum made of bamboo, and the piece is purportedly an evocation of Saturday night social dancing at the Place Congo (Congo Square), a hall frequented by les gens de couleur, New Orleans’ free mulatto or mixed-blood population, who were largely of Caribbean descent.

None of this can be confirmed. The tunes are not recognizably West Indian, nor was the very sheltered Gottschalk likely to have been taken as a lad to witness such goings-on at first hand. But in evoking the bamboula drum, whether real or imaginary, Gottschalk devised an angular, dryly percussive style of piano playing (Ex. 7-13), full of hocketing exchanges between the hands and reinforced in the notation by many polyglot reminders to the player to keep it up (“très rhythmé,” “sostenuto il canto, staccato l'accompagnement,” “pesante il basso,” etc.). The touch, and consequently the texture, is exceptionally differentiated, the two hands (and sometimes two lines within a single hand) being radically contrasted. There is even a spot where the right hand is required to play legato and rubato while the left hand carries the warning “la basse toujours rhythmée,” and (even more unusually) there are whole sections in which the damper pedal is held in abeyance.

This special piano touch, “wild and indescribable” to listeners used to Chopin and Liszt, later became the foundation of ragtime, especially when Gottschalk added syncopated Latin American rhythms to the mix (as in his “Souvenir de Porto Rico, Marche des Gibaros”) during a strange Caribbean interlude that lasted from 1857 to 1862 (Ex. 7-14). The hocketing hands-exchange technique reached its peak in The Banjo (1854), composed while Gottschalk was living in Spain and briefly enjoying court patronage. At the end (Ex. 7-15a) there is a lengthy bravura coda or cadenza based on the melody of his compatriot Stephen Foster's then brand-new Camptown Races (1850), in which the accompaniment was already fashioned to resemble banjo-picking (Ex. 7-15b).

America Joins In

ex. 7-13 Louis Moreau Gottschalk, Bamboula, mm. 1–24

While Foster (1826–64) wrote music for consumption in homely domestic venues or minstrel shows, Gottschalk's bravura exercises in Americana, it is important to remember, were composed for European audiences. He returned to America early in 1853 for what he expected to be a whirlwind tour, but his father's death later that year turned him willy-nilly into the family breadwinner. From then on he made his career entirely on the terms of the burgeoning American music trade, not on those of the European salon culture to which he had expected to return. He would not be Chopin's successor as society lap dog after all. His destiny lay in the uniquely American business of popularizing high culture.

He stepped up the frequency of his concert tours to unprecedented levels, causing him chronic exhaustion and periods of burnout, and considerably shortening his life in consequence. Thanks to the boom in American railway construction that coincided exactly with his peak concertizing period, Gottschalk covered more miles in less time than any other virtuoso of the day, playing not only big cities but small mill and mining towns from coast to coast and bringing European fine-art music to audiences of a kind that would never have heard it in Europe. Toward the end of his concert career he calculated that between 1853 and 1865 he had given 1,100 recitals and logged more than 95,000 miles by rail.

And he did all this not in twelve years, actually, but in only seven, since (as already mentioned) he spent the years 1857 to 1862, following a nervous breakdown, leading a vagabond existence in the Caribbean, playing little but composing much. His works from this period included a one-act opera (Escenas campestres [Rural Scenes]), a symphony (La nuit des tropiques [The Tropical Night]), and a new crop of “Latin” piano works like the one in Ex. 7-14, which he could later purvey to American audiences as the kind of exotic fare with which he had formerly regaled Paris.

But he also composed quantities of precisely the kind of sentimental commercial music his European experience had taught him to despise—sentimental parlor-piano compositions with titles like The Last Hope (1854), The Maiden's Blush (1863), The Dying Poet (1864), and Morte! (1868). It practically goes without saying that these compositions, intended for home consumption, were not in the least nationalistic. Quite the contrary: just as to aristocratic European audiences Gottschalk had represented untamed America, so to the “vulgar” American public, both those who came to hear him play and those who purchased the sheet music afterward to play at home, he represented European “class.”

America Joins In

fig. 7-8 Stephen Foster, portrait by Thomas Hicks.

America Joins InAmerica Joins In

ex. 7-14 Louis Moreau Gottschalk, Souvenir de Porto Rico, Marche des Gibaros

A vivid case in point is the single piece of Americana he composed in America: a rousing pastiche of patriotic songs called Union, with which he would end his concerts during the Civil War. After a stormy martial introduction and an ornate arrangement of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” during which audiences presumably stood at attention, there came a contrapuntal juxtaposition of “Yankee Doodle” and “Hail Columbia,” a far more learned, even academic sort of exercise than he would have dreamed of playing before European audiences who heard conservatory-trained musicians every day.

America Joins In

ex. 7-15a Louis Moreau Gottschalk, the Foster-quoting section of The Banjo

America Joins In

ex. 7-15b The corresponding snatch of Fosters “Camptown Races”

The first statement of “Hail Columbia” is European in another way as well: as an exercise in the most recondite, most sophisticated sort of slithery “continental” harmonization, indebted above all to Chopin (Ex. 7-16a). If Bamboula and Souvenir de Porto Rico gave a foretaste of ragtime, this passage is a prophecy of the vogue for sentimental barbershop quartet singing that flourished as a sort of American Männerchor movement for forty years or so beginning in the 1890s (see Ex. 7-16b).

Gottschalk was forced to leave the United States in 1865 to avoid prosecution on a charge (later declared unfounded) of statutory rape. He spent the last four years of his life, as his biographer and performing champion Jeanne Behrend put it, “skirting much of the outer rim of South America—six months in Peru, one year in Chile, two years in Argentina and Uruguay, seven and a half months in Brazil.”38 During this final period Gottschalk became a sort of P. T. Barnum of music, or perhaps an American Berlioz, taking popularization to new heights in monster concerts that he organized wherever he went at the expense of the Chickering piano manufacturing firm of Boston, the inventor of the cast-iron frame (hence the perfecter of the modern grand piano), which had made Gottschalk an official trade representative. In South America this musical son of New Orleans now represented Yankee enterprise.

The pinnacle was reached in Rio de Janeiro on 24 November 1869 with the cooperation of the Brazilian Emperor Pedro II, who placed the massed bands of the National Guard, the Imperial Army and Navy, and three municipal orchestras at Gottschalk's disposal. “Just think of 800 performers and 80 drums to lead,”39 he exulted, exaggerating only slightly, in a letter to a friend. The concert went “crescendo,” starting with Gottschalk alone on stage playing a Lisztian potpourri on themes from Charles Gounod's popular operatic version of Goethe's Faust, followed by a new Tarantella for piano and orchestra. Then the curtain went up on the great mass of performers, 650 in all. After the Brazilian national anthem played (according to the Anglo Brazilian Times) by “forty young ladies on twenty-five pianos” (Chickerings, of course), came the Grand March from Meyerbeer's Le prophète, a movement from Gottschalk's own “Tropical Night” Symphony, and as grand finale a new work of Gottschalk's, composed for the occasion and dedicated to the Emperor: Marcha solemne brasileira, replete with backstage cannon fire. A repetition of the entire program was scheduled for the day after next, with a solo performance by Gottschalk on the evening in between.

America Joins In

ex. 7-16a Louis Moreau Gottschalk, Union, mm. 11–24

No novelist would dare invent what happened next for fear of losing credibility. Gottschalk collapsed during that intervening performance right in the midst of Morte! (She's Dead), one of his popular potboilers, and had to be carried from the stage back to his hotel room. The second concerto monstro had to be postponed, then canceled. Gottschalk never played again. He died on 18 December from the consequences of a ruptured abdominal abscess.


(35) Louis Moreau Gottschalk, Notes of a Pianist (Philadelphia: J. P. Lippincott, 1881), p. 33.

(36) Gilbert Chase, America's Music (2nd ed., New York: McGraw-Hill, 1966), p. 315.

(37) Quoted in Richard Jackson, “Gottschalk of Louisiana,” introduction to Piano Music of Louis Moreau Gottschalk (New York: Dover, 1973), p. v.

(38) Jeanne Behrend, editorial interpolation within Louis Moreau Gottschalk, Notes of a Pianist (New York: Knopf, 1964), p. 320.

(39) Quoted in Jeanne Behrend, “Postlude,” in L. M. Gottschalk, Notes of a Pianist (New York: Knopf, 1964), p. 403.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 7 Self and Other." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 25 Oct. 2021. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-007012.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 7 Self and Other. In Oxford University Press, Music in the Nineteenth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 25 Oct. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-007012.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 7 Self and Other." In Music in the Nineteenth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 25 Oct. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-007012.xml