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Chopin Called Him “The King Of Pianists”
But was Louis Moreau Gottschalk America’s first musical genius or simply the purveyor of sentimental claptrap?
December 1982 | Volume 34, Issue 1
Normally, the French press did not cover pianistic debuts, but Gottschalk’s performance had caused such a stir it could not be ignored. When the notices began to appear, they served to confirm Chopin’s judgment. There was some grumbling that the program had not been “classical” enough; “the classics” at the time meant the works of departed masters such as Bach, Mozart, and Haydn. It did not mean the showy salon pieces of Liszt and Chopin. La Revue et Gazette Musicale thought it particularly unfortunate Gottschalk had seen fit to play the Chopin concerto, “a composition of great difficulty and of little brilliance.” However, there was no doubt regarding the American’s keyboard ability. Le Ménestrel managed to misspell Gottschalk’s name but conceded he played “in a manner which merits him a first place among our virtuosos.”
Gottschalk went on to an enormously successful concert career. In the next twenty-five years, he became the first American concert pianist of any stature and the first American composer whose works were appreciated in Europe. He toured the Continent and the Western Hemisphere at a suicidal pace and became cne of the most famous musicians of the time. But if it is possible to encapsulate an entire artistic life within the program notes pf a single concert, the essential themes of Gottschalk’s career were struck at his debut and repeated with minor variations for the rest of his days. For his virtuosity there was an awe of the kind reserved for the likes of Liszt and Paganini. But there was always the suspicion that he was not a truly classical musician. His virtuosity brought him international popularity and considerable cash. But doubts about his “seriousness” served posthumously to destroy his reputation. His compositions, which were once regarded as the first important music to come out of America, were later dismissed as sentimental claptrap suitable only for parlor piano rolls and background music at silent movies. His playing, which had astonished and dazzled Berlioz, subsequently was denigrated by musical historians who never heard him in performance. With only a few exceptions, when the name of Louis Moreau Gottschalk is now dredged up by contemporary musicologists, it is as if he were some quaint artifact from America’s cultural and social past, like a stereopticon or an elephant’s hoof umbrella stand. It has been a cruel joke for history to play upon the memory of a man who, in his day, was placed in the vanguard of musical modernists.
Gottschalk’s day was the 1840s, a time when the fires of musical romanticism were burning their brightest. There is a tendency today to regard the romantics of a century ago as a group of lyrical aesthetes palpitating over little passages and dabbing vinegar on their temples when the excitement of striking a diminished seventh grew too intense. In fact, they were lusty, creative artists bent on musical revolution as surely as their political counterparts were determined to create a new social order. It is unlikely that serious music has ever known a more turbulent decade than the one of 1840. Liszt abruptly retired from the concert stage in 1847 to devote himself to conducting, teaching, and composing works that were to be as puzzling as his playing had been galvanizing. Berlioz produced La Damnation de Faust , perhaps his most representative work, in 1847. Working independently, and never really comprehending the other’s genius, Verdi and Wagner were assaulting the bel canto traditions of opera. The central figure of the movement, however, was Chopin. It was a curious position for him to be in because he vigorously disliked everything to do with romanticism in whatever form it presented itself. His heart was firmly with Bach and Mozart, and he held his fellow romantics in slight regard. He refused to have anything to do with the works of Mendelssohn or Schubert and once told a friend that Schumann’s Carnaval should not be considered music at all. He thought Liszt’s music was silly and Berlioz’s incoherent. Nonetheless, when he died at the age of thirty-nine in 1849, he became the symbol of musical romanticism and, in the words of the historian and critic Harold C. Schonberg, “properly set romantic pianism on its rails and gave it the impetus that still shows no signs of deceleration.”
As a pianist Gottschalk was Chopin’s anointed successor, and there were those who felt he was the master’s superior. According to Adolphe Adam, Gottschalk had “all the grace of Chopin, with more decided character.” Berlioz, whom Liszt called “the most powerful musical brain in France,” engaged Gottschalk many times to play in his orchestras and became his particular champion. “Gottschalk is one of the very small number who possess all the different elements of a consummate pianist,” Berlioz wrote. “He knows just how fancy can be indulged in expression. He knows the limits beyond which any freedom taken with the rhythm produces only confusion and disorder, and upon these limits he never encroaches. There is an exquisite grace in his manner.”