Home » Uncategorized » Louis Moreau Gottschalk and his Symphony No. 1, “A Night in the Tropics”

Louis Moreau Gottschalk and his Symphony No. 1, “A Night in the Tropics”

Louis Moreau Gottschalk (May 8, 1829 – December 18, 1869) was an American composer and pianist, best known as a virtuoso performer of his own romantic piano works. who spent most of his working career outside of the United States. Gottschalk was born in New Orleans to an English Jewish businessman and real estate speculator from London, Edward Gottschalk, and his French-descended Creole bride. He had six brothers and sisters. His family lived for a time in a tiny cottage, but Louis later moved in with relatives. His maternal grandmother Bruslé and his nurse Sally had both been born in Saint-Domingue, known later as Haiti, so he was exposed to a variety of musical traditions,especially the Creole music with its African-Caribbean rhythms and the melodious folk songs that would later become a characteristic ingredient of much of his own music. Piano study was undertaken with Narcisse Lettellier, and he played the piano from an early age. Gottschalk would listen to the music that filled the streets of New Orleans in the 1830s at many of the ubiquitous Sunday afternoon public dances held by slaves across the city. He was soon recognized as a child prodigy pianist by the New Orleans bourgeois establishment, making his informal public debut in 1840 at the then new St. Charles Hotel. The program described Gottschalk as “a young Creole” and his début already foreshadowed his later work: Taking a Latin dance tune and performing a series of variations on the tune, thus combining the popularity of the tune and subjecting it to a very Gottschalkian treatment, he charmed the audience.

Only two years later, in 1842 at the age of 13, Gottschalk left the United States and sailed to Europe, as he and his father realized a classical training was required to fulfil his musical ambitions. The Paris Conservatoire, however, rejected his application without hearing him, on the grounds of his nationality. For this reason, Gottschalk had to gain gradually access to the musical establishment through family friends and found opportunity to study privately with Karl Hallé, Camille-Marie Stamaty, and Pierre Malenden, the latter teaching composition. His Paris debut at the Salle Pleyel in 1845 earned praise from Chopin. He then toured Europe as a virtuoso concert soloist while still a teenager. By the end of the 1840s, Gottschalk’s first works, such as Bamboula, appeared. These syncopated pieces based on popular Creole melodies rapidly gained popularity worldwide. Sadly his youth was shattered by the death of his father, requiring the young man to find the money to support his six brothers and sisters. So after returning to the United States in 1853, he traveled extensively throughout the United States and Canada to earn a living, and a sojourn in Cuba during 1854 was the beginning of a series of trips to Central and South America. By the 1860s, Gottschalk had established himself as the best known pianist in the New World, partly as a result of tremendous hard work, as is evident from his travel schedule which, at one point in 1862, included 85 concerts, all at different locations, in just four and a half months.. Although born and reared in New Orleans, he was a supporter of the Union cause during the American Civil War. He returned to his native city only occasionally for concerts, but he always introduced himself as a New Orleans native.

To supplement his income Gottschalk composed salon pieces to meet the growing market for piano music. In 1855, he signed a contract with publisher William Hall to issue several pieces, including The Banjo and The Last Hope. His compositions written for orchestra show a composer of who could create memorable and catchy tunes. In May 1865, he was mentioned in a San Francisco newspaper as having “travelled 95,000 miles by rail and given 1,000 concerts.” In September 1865, Gottschalk chose to focus his attention on South America, where he had continued to give frequent concerts, and embarked on what would become his last and perhaps most successful tour, during the course of which he travelled to Santiago de Chile, Buenos Aires, Rio de Janeiro, and many other less well-known locations, giving “monster concerts” involving up to 650 performers. During one of these concerts, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on November 24, 1869, he collapsed from having contracted malaria. Just before his collapse, he had finished playing his romantic piece Morte! (interpreted as “she is dead”), although the actual collapse occurred just as he started to play his celebrated piece Tremolo. Gottschalk never recovered from the collapse. Three weeks later, on December 18, 1869, at the age of 40, he died at his hotel in Tijuca, Rio de Janeiro.

Gottschalk’s music was very popular during his lifetime, and his earliest compositions created a sensation in Europe. Early pieces like Bamboula, La Savane, Le Bananier and Le Mancenillier were based on Gottschalk’s memories of the music he heard during his youth in Louisiana. In this context, some of Gottschalk’s work, such as the 13-minute opera Escenas campestres, retains a wonderfully innocent sweetness and charm. The impact of Gottschalk’s music on the later development of ragtime might seem obvious. The music of Scott Joplin and Jelly Roll Morton show traces of Gottschalk’s melodic shape and rhythmic pulse. By the 1940s, Gottschalk was condemned as hopelessly old-fashioned, but in recent years, there has been a steady growth of interest in his music. Traditionally, Gottschalk is remembered as a virtuoso, as well as a prolific composer of popular music. Gottschalk was also the first and, one might well argue, possibly the last pan-American composer and artist. Not only did he travel frequently outside the United States, as did, by necessity, most virtuoso pianists at the time; he also lived in South America and the Caribbean for extended periods of time, incorporating, without prejudice but with critical judgment, many local influences and musical traditions.

My collection contains the following works by Gottschalk.

Escenes Campestras (Cuban Country Scenes), opera in one act, RO 77 (1860).
Grand Fantasie Triomphale sur L’Hymne National Bresilien for piano and orchestra, op. 69 (1869).
Grand Tarantelle for piano and orchestra, RO 259, Op. 67 (1860).
Marcha Triunfal y Final de Opera, for orchestra and band, RO 157 (1860).
Marche Solonelle for orchestra and bands, RO 154 (1868).
Symphony No. 1, Night in the Tropics, RO 255.
Symphony No. 2, A Montevideo, RO 257 (1868?).
The Union, Concert Paraphrase on National Airs for piano and orchestra, RO 269, op. 48 (1862).
Variations on the Portugese National Hymn for Piano and Orchestra, RO 289, op. 91 (1869).

—material taken, adapted, and edited from various sources


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