"Life is a moderately good play with a badly written third act."
Truman Capote  

    n 13 April, 1851 there appeared in the Feuilleton du Journal des Debats, in Paris, an article by Hector Berlioz, composer of Symphonie Fantastique and first music critic of France. It read in part -

" . . . Mr. Gottschalk is one of the very small number of those who possess all the different elements of the sovereign power of the pianist, all the attributes which environ him with an irresistible prestige. . . his playing strikes from the first, dazzles, astonishes . . . The success, also, of Mr. Gottschalk when he is in the presence of a civilized musical audience, is immense."  [1]L. M. Gottschalk, Notes of a Pianist - pg. 50 - 51.

    Then on 14 June, 1851, the Mémorial des Pyrénées had this to say of Gottschalk -

"Gottschalk's execution astonishes, while, at the same time, it charms. Thus, while the right hand designs the theme and gives it all its contours, the other, as if it had winged fingers and with vertiginous rapidity, flies from one end of the key-board to the other . . . and the last note is as pure, as velvety as the first."  [2]L. M. Gottschalk, Notes of a Pianist - pg. 56.

    Critical reviews of this nature were not handed to anyone and these are but two articles among dozens that applauded the young pianist. What makes these critiques the more astonishing was that the pianist in the article was American. He was Louisiana born Louis Moreau Gottschalk and no American musician had, up to that time, ever distinguished himself before European audiences. Gottschalk did it by the time he was 21 years old.

    Born in 1829 in New Orleans, Louisiana, Gottschalk would come to be known as the "Chopin of the Créoles" and spent most of his life as a touring concert pianist. As a child, Gottschalk showed a gift for music and within a few years had surpassed the best piano teachers in New Orleans. Realizing he needed a proper music education Gottschalk's father sent him to Paris at the age of twelve. There he studied piano with Karl Hallé and Camille Stamaty and composition with Pierre Maledan. His performing began in the private salons of Paris as a teenager and quickly progressed to the public stage where he was hailed as equal to the best pianists of the day. Ultimately, he was able to build a reputation as a first rate virtuoso as he toured France, Switzerland and Spain. Having spent eleven years in Europe he returned to America and spent the remainder of his life as a touring concert pianist in the US, the Caribbean and South America.

    Upon returning to America in 1853, Gottschalk expected his life as an artist to be no different than what he had become accustomed to in France and initially that was the case. His US debut was well received and it seemed as though he would do well in his own country. Instead, he soon found himself in a downward spiral, something he had never experienced. Less than a year after his return, his concerts were poorly attended and he was he was being openly attacked by some American critics. Nobody, not even his detractors, doubted his skill at the keyboard. It was his compositions that had come into question. And to be sure, there was no middle ground as the polemics faced off. Simply put, some people in America felt it was time for an American cultural identity free of European influence while others were content to bask in the achievements of European composers, particularly the German school. Thus, when Gottschalk constructed his programs largely of his own compositions he unwittingly became a test case in a controversy that would continue into the next century.

    Gottschalk's supporters felt that, at last, here was a uniquely American composer and his use of Louisiana Creole tunes in his some of his compositions indelibly stamped them as American. In the opinion of Gottschalk's detractors, his music did not measure up to their European ideal and his reluctance to perform the classics was sacrilege. In time, Gottschalk recovered from those setbacks and his celebrity as a performer increased to such a degree that he became a nineteenth century equivalent of a super-star.

    At the age of 39, Gottschalk collapsed at the piano while giving a concert in Rio de Janeiro and died three weeks later. His prestige as a composer continued throughout the following decades then finally faded. He is now one of many nineteenth century composers who have become lost in time. This naturally begs the question, is he worthy of remembering, or more concisely, was he a good composer? His œuvre consists mostly of works for piano and very few orchestral pieces. That in it self is enough to reserve a place in artistic purgatory as there have been numerous composers for the keyboard who share a place in the abyss with Gottschalk. Among his few orchestral works are two symphonies that are in fact non-symphonies, the Grand Tarantelle for piano and orchestra for which more than twenty different versions have surfaced, a fifteen minute opera, variations on the Portuguese national anthem and a fantasy on an overture by Mehul.

    To truly gauge Gottschalk's worth as a composer one is left to consider his piano works and therein lies another problem; his music does not fit neatly into a single niche. Some of his pieces are Chopinesque, some decidedly Louisianan, others are spicy Latin American pieces and if that isn't enough variety there are polkas, waltzes, schottisches, gallops, patriotic pieces and a few pieces so sentimental as to make ladies cry and send high brows into a rage. Perhaps his greatest sin of all was, he didn't write any high brow music. No sonotas, no soaring concerti, no monumental 'proper' symphonies, just piano pieces.Gottschalk aspired to make his mark in the world of opera and it is believed he may have worked on at least two opera's but all traces of these have vanished. Adding to the dilemma is the fact that he was a master at improvisation and possessed an impeccable memory; he simply did not write down many of the works he performed. Much of what he 'wrote' is lost as a result of his reluctance to commit his music to paper.

    One is left then, to consider an artist who was more than equipped to write in a classical vein but chose not to. An artist whose life's work is represented by three hundred works and many of those are lost. Some of his compositions are treacherously difficult and beautifully written while others were dialed back to accommodate amateurs and encourage sales. What one chooses to think of Gottschalk ultimately boils down to ones taste in music and even now, there are those who fault Gottschalk for his avoidance of classical forms and regard him as unworthy. And, there are those who see in his quirkier works the prototypes of ragtime and jazz. In the end, Gottschalk followed his own path, resisting pressures from critics and leaving for us a wealth of original music.

    Enumeration of 'the masters' does not include Gottschalk and given his legacy, shouldn't. To avoid him altogether though, is to deny an important chapter in the history of nineteenth century music. When the 'masters' were busy with their austere creations, Gottschalk was exploring uncharted territory and left a wonderful record of music trends outside of European concert halls.

    Discussion concerning an American classical style continues even today and often leads to the invocation of Aaron Copland as the pioneer in this regard. His use of cowboy and folk tunes in his compositions was deemed highly original and propelled him to the status of an authentic American composer. If the criteria for creating an American classical style boils down to the use of indigenous traditional tunes, then the prize goes to Louis Moreau Gottschalk.

Note:  Louisiana, an addendum to this site, provides a brief outline of the history of Louisiana so as to give the reader a sense of the time and place into which Gottschalk was born. Those interested in this section can find it at this link.