Chopin Called Him “The King Of Pianists”

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Gottschalk must have known he was often just going through the motions, and we can only guess what emotional price he had to pay for that self-knowledge. We may assess part of that price by the curious West Indian interlude in his career. In 1856 he began a long association with Salvatore Patti and his daughter, Adelina, who was to become one of the greatest divas in operatic history. They concertized throughout the Caribbean. For a while it was an exciting time. Gottschalk explored the possibilities of Cuban music with a huge ensemble from Havana’s Grand Tacon Theater. “My orchestra,” he wrote, “consists of six hundred and fifty performers, eighty-seven choristers, fifteen solo singers, fifty drums and eighty trumpets—that is to say nearly nine hundred persons bellowing and blowing to see who could scream the loudest.”

During this period he wrote some of his finest piano music and his first symphony, A Night in the Tropics , a glorious orchestral work in which traditional symphonic music abandons itself to the syncopation of habanera rhythms.

THEN SUDDENLY , in 1860, he dropped out of sight. Later he was to write that he fell under the sway of the Antilles, which “impart a voluptuous languor that is contagious; it is a poison that slowly infiltrates all the senses and benumbs the soul with a kind of ecstatic torpor.” A less romantic, modern view might be that he experienced a small breakdown. After a full ten years of the most vigorous concertizing, he seemed gripped by a consuming lassitude. For more than a year he was scarcely heard from, and occasionally a notice of his death appeared in American newspapers.

Gottschalk spent most of this time roaming about the Antilles, “indolently permitting myself to be carried away by chance… giving a concert whenever the night overtook me. ” As often as not, Gottschalk’s audience was a lone, half-mad mulatto who thought himself to be the Pope’s brother.

The mists began to clear, possibly because he was running short of cash, and he began to pick up the threads of a concertizing career in Havana when word came from the United States about the outbreak of the Civil War. A Southerner by birth and social inclination, Gottschalk nonetheless detested the institution of slavery and was a staunch Unionist. He swore an oath of allegiance to the Federal government and hurried back to New York. He arrived in February 1862, full of self-reproach for his Latin sojourn; “years foolishly spent, thrown to the wind, as if life were infinite, and youth eternal.”

He became the foremost musician associated with the North. His heroic piano composition “L’Union,” a paraphrase of national tunes dedicated to Gen. George McClellan, Commander of the Army of the Potomac, was accepted as an anthem of the Federal cause. Part of the mythology surrounding Gottschalk during this period was that he frequently appeared on the battlefield to play for the Union troops. There is no evidence to indicate he actually sought out a killing ground as a concert stage, but his openhearted support for the Union was well appreciated. President Lincoln, not a notably music-minded statesman—he once listened to a prodigy playing a number of serious pieces at a White House recital and finally asked if the child would mind playing “Listen to the Mocking Bird”—was persuaded to appear at a Gottschalk performance of “L’Union.” Gottschalk was mortified because he felt he had played badly before his beloved President, but it is unlikely Lincoln would have known one way or the other.

Gottschalk resumed concertizing at a furious rate. When, before, he had given two concerts in a day, he now, thanks to knowledge of train schedules worthy of a dispatcher, was sometimes able to manage three.

The Northern states were not suited to his warm temperament—“when I see snow, I see death”—but he pushed himself ruthlessly. Musically, it was not a happy time for him. He wrote almost nothing of any interest during the war years, and the unremitting grind of his concert schedule as he entrained from one small town to the next, always repeating the same program of minor Gottschalk showpieces wherever he went, became a dreadful burden. “I have become stupid with it,” he wrote in his diary. “I have the appearance of an automaton under the influence of a voltaic pile. My fingers move on the keyboard with feverish heat, and for the moment it is not possible for me to hear the music, without experiencing something of the sensation of that hero of Alexander Dumas fils , condemned for one month to eat nothing but pigeon. The sight of a piano sets my hair on end like the victim in the presence of the wheel on which he is about to be tortured.”