Chopin Called Him “The King Of Pianists”

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GOTTSCHALK ARRIVED back in America in 1853, eager to match the huge financial success enjoyed by the Swedish soprano, Tenny Lind, three years before. His first New York concert, on February 11, was only a middling success, but his second, the following week, was a triumph. “A mere pianist,” The New York Times reported, “has filled the great Niblo’s Garden from pit to ceiling.” He went on to Philadelphia, where he was billed as “the King of pianists” and unveiled a new piano work entitled The Battle of Bunker Hill . The piece turned out to be El Sitio de Zaragoza all over again, with the Spanish airs removed and snatches of “Yankee Doodle,” “The Star-Spangled Banner,” and “Oh, Susannah” put in their place, but it was warmly received.

For the next seven years, Gottschalk was a musical vagabond, touring all over the eastern United States. “My home,” he confided to his diary, “is somewhere between the baggage car and the last car of the train. … The conductors salute me as one of the employees.” He made a good deal of money, but was keenly disappointed that his success did not equal that of Jenny Lind. Except in his native New Orleans, he never experienced the kind of rapturous reception he had known in Europe. Although he was an ardent republican in American political matters, he clearly missed hobnobbing with nobility and having regents strike medals in his honor. Americans just paid cash. And there were some places where not even cash seemed worth the effort. New Jersey and Central Africa, he said, had to be the two worst places in the world to try to play serious music.

In Boston he received his first set of bad notices. The musical scene there was ruled by the severe critic and cleric, John Sullivan Dwight, whose Journal of Music was the most influential music magazine in America at the time. Dwight was steeped in the Germanic sobrieties of Beethoven. Gottschalk, with his Frenchified manner and delicate Parisian touch, playing tunes culled from the New Orleans marketplace, was everything Dwight abhorred in contemporary music. He granted Gottschalk’s technique, “the most clear and crisp and beautiful that we have ever known,” but then added, “What is the execution without some thought and meaning?” Gottschalk’s program of dainty salon pieces was dismissed as an affront to New England musical intelligence. If Gottschalk wanted to present himself as a serious musician, he should play some serious music. Gottschalk countered by doing a very foolish thing. The program for a later concert listed a little-known Beethoven bagatelle as a Gottschalk composition, and identified Beethoven as the composer of one of Gottschalk’s pieces. Dwight dutifully fell into the trap set for him. He praised the “Beethoven” and excoriated the “Gottschalk.” Gottschalk wrote the eminent critic a-note apologizing for the “printer’s error” in the program, but sweetly thanking him for such high praise for his simple work. Gottschalk won the day on points, but it did him little good to show up the humorless Dwight. For the next fifteen years the Boston journal sniped away at Gottschalk’s reputation with devastating effect.

When a pianist has been kissed by Chopin and praised by Berlioz, it is easy to disregard the carping of a Boston divine who cannot recognize a Beethoven work when he hears one. But there was much truth in Dwight’s criticism. For all of the brilliant sheen on Gottschalk’s talent as a pianist and a composer, it was not a particularly deep talent. Although he played Bach for a few knowledgeable friends, and by all accounts superbly, he felt he dared not play such difficult music in front of a paying American audience. It was all very well and good for Dwight to preach the doctrine of high art to the scattering of classical music lovers who read his little magazine; Gottschalk had a living to make. His job was not to bring the intricate glories of Bach to Davenport, Iowa, but to get the people of Davenport to come to his concerts at all. When the public could pay fifty cents to see Adah Menken as “The Naked Lady” astride a horse in Mazeppa , getting them to spend two dollars to watch a small man in a frock coat play the piano was not one of the easier ticket sells in the entertainment world. Increasingly he fell back on the old familiar stuff that had always worked in the past. More important, he started to get sloppy. On January 28,1857, the Musical Journal in Philadelphia caught him in the unforgivable: “Mr. Gottschalk attempted to play the first part of Henselt’s Concerto, Op. 16. We say ‘attempted’ not because he substituted for the difficult runs of the middle part his usual easy ones, leaving out entirely those for the left hand, nor because he dropped a good many notes; but because in spite of these abbreviations and simplifications, the remaining difficulties of the piece appeared to be so immense to him that he could not afford to show the least expression, not anything of an artistic-like conception or treatment. ”