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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
Gottschalk also made his mark as a composer those first days in Paris. Drawing on the black and Creole melodies of his New Orleans childhood, he fashioned a number of brilliant piano show pieces. “Bamboula” recalled the street cry of a Lousiana yam vendor, and “La Savanne” was a delightful reconstruction of “Skip to My Lou, My Darling,” a ballad that Gottschalk’s old family slave-servant, Sally, used to sing to the children. Gottschalk’s parents, who had come to Paris to join him in his new-found celebrity, were delighted with those familiar airs, but his mother was shocked to hear he planned to play “nigger stuff” in the sophisticated salons of Paris. But along with romanticism had come nationalism. Gottschalk’s exotic compositions powered by the thrilling left hand imitating the beat of the tom-tom took their place alongside the Polish mazurkas of Chopin and the Hungarian rhapsodies of Liszt. “Who does not know ‘Bamboula’?” asked La France Musicale during the height of the Gottschalk rage. “Le Bananier,” written in 1849, according to one nineteenth-century catalogue, was the most played, most applauded piano piece of the day. Gottschalk also became something of a pet in Parisian literary circles, where he consorted with Dumas, Hugo, Lamartine, and Gautier. In June 1849 he must have felt his triumph in France to be complete. He was asked to sit with Pierre Zimmermann of the Paris Conservatoire as a judge at their annual concourse for students of the piano. One of the contemporary works selected as a test piece was his own “Bamboula.” The French, and perhaps Mr. Zimmermann as well, simply ignored Gottschalk’s discomforting American background and claimed him as their own. Gottschalk was merely an American by accident of birth. The critic Oscar Comettant grandly announced, “II est Français d’esprit, de coeur, de goût et d’habitudes. ”
Later that same year, Gottschalk embarked on the first of the grand concert tours that were to occupy him, except for one extended and uncharacteristic period of lassitude, for the rest of his life. He played engagements throughout the provinces of France and went on to great success in Switzerland. In Lausanne, he said, the audience threw enough flowers on the stage to carpet the theater. After playing “Le Bananier” as an encore five times, he finally slipped off the stage and “left the lunatics to yell in the desert.”
When he was not pocketing cash from ticket receipts at public performances, there were little tokens presented to him by members of the nobility, such as the gold and diamond jewel case presented to him by the Grand Duchess Anna of Russia in gratitude for playing at one of her salons. There were other, even more startling, evidences of his popularity. Following a concert in Geneva, the diminutive Gottschalk was waylaid by an ardent lady who picked him up, stashed him in her carriage, and galloped off with him. They were not seen again for five weeks. It was a great scandal, of course, but not the kind to harm the reputation of a virtuoso pianist, particularly at a time when women were known to battle each other over one of Liszt’s abandoned cigar butts.
After a brief return to Paris, Gottschalk went on to Spain, where his reception was almost hysterical. Queen Isabella made him a chevalier, and the Spanish Academy inducted him as an honorary member. The Spanish audiences were particularly fond of highly theatrical musical offerings, and Gottschalk, who was developing a keen appreciation for giving the audience what it wanted, composed a monster work entitled El Sitio de Zaragoza (“The Siege of Saragossa”). Billed as a “grand symphony for ten pianos,” it was apparently a mélange of Spanish national airs punctuated by bugle calls and cannonades. Only a fragment of its original three-hundred-page score has survived, but it must have been quite something. One critic said the work “unveiled the true heart of the Spanish people.” Gottschalk was told to make himself at home in the royal palace, and this he did, playing duets with the king and, according to court rumors, finding time for a few high-level affairs of the heart. Two of the ladies romantically linked with Gottschalk were the queen’s sister, Doña Luisa, and the Countess de Montijo, who was soon to become the wife of Napoleon III.
Abruptly one morning an emissary from the queen arrived at Gottschalk’s door with a message informing him he had exactly twenty-four hours to leave Spain. It is not clear whether Gottschalk had aroused the queen’s displeasure as a result of a sexual indiscretion or if he had been caught up in one of the baroque political intrigues that flourished in Isabella’s court. Whatever the reason, it was not to be the last time a woman was responsible for Gottschalk having to pack his luggage quickly and head for the border.