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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
Understandably, his health faltered. He started experiencing attacks of neuralgia in his eye and he frequently had to take to his bed suffering from the effects of recurring influenza. One of the lowest points in his life surely came in June 1865, when he arrived for a concert in Virginia City, Nevada, “the saddest, the most wearisome, the most inhospitable place on the globe.” For three days he lay in the bedroom of a small mining-camp hotel too ill to get up, and except for a doctor and a few people from Louisiana who had heard of him, no one came to inquire after his health. Thus Gottschalk, who had been served champagne in the most rarefied salons in Paris, could not persuade a hotel clerk in Virginia City to bring him a glass of warm water.
He then journeyed on to San Francisco where he was to know his last success in America. His concerts were well attended and the city presented him with a huge gold medal nine inches in circumference and encrusted with diamonds and rubies. It was, according to one San Francisco newspaper, “worthy of a monarch” and was presented with all respect to “the first musician in America.”
Gottschalk doubtless accepted the gift as such, but his enjoyment of the civic honor was short lived. Soon afterward he was caught up in another Gottschalkian scandal. The details are sketchy, but apparently he had been taken with a young lady from the Oakland Female Seminary. The two had gone for a carriage ride and returned somewhat late. The girl was dismissed from school, and a few days later Gottschalk sneaked out of San Francisco, leaving his pianos behind, and boarded a steamer for South America. Gottschalk later protested his innocence and claimed the incident came about as a result of a smear campaign launched by a disgruntled impresario. Vernon Loggins, Gottschalk’s most encyclopedic biographer, has insisted, with some ingenuousness, that nothing disreputable could possibly have taken place because the carriage never stopped en route. However, San Francisco was a community of considerable worldliness, and it is difficult to believe that an honored cultural figure would have been forced to flee the city with vigilantes in dogged pursuit merely because he had made a young lady late for school.
Although Gottschalk sometimes talked about returning to America and defending his honor, he never did. For the next four years he performed in South America specializing in multi-piano concerts, which provided his audiences with a great deal of noise but probably not much in the way of music. It was at one of those outsized concerts that he collapsed at the piano and died a few days later. He was forty years old.
If a pianist and a composer can be said to live as long as his playing is remembered and his works performed, then Gottschalk, indeed, died young. Three years after his death the truly classic age of pianism in America was ushered in at the concert by Anton Gregor Rubinstein. Playing a more deeply resonant Steinway piano than Gottschalk’s lightly strung Chickering, the Russian virtuoso brought forth an emotional intensity few recalled ever coming from Gottschalk. Rubinstein played the masterworks of Beethoven and Bach that Gottschalk had feared to try. By comparison, Gottschalk seemed to be what Dwight had always said he was: shallow. In sad truth, it is very likely that Gottschalk’s playing did deteriorate into a kind of flashy inconsequentialness. However, we must also enter into Gottschalk’s ledger the earlier judgments of Berlioz and Chopin, neither of whom were given to praising insubstantial talent, and recognize that for a dozen years Gottschalk had traveled throughout America playing under dreadful conditions in front of audiences who, by and large, did not have an idea in the world what he was doing. No American had ever played any better before and only a few have played as well since.
The posthumous judgments on his compositions have been even more devastating to his reputation. Although Gottschalk wrote three operas and several orchestral works, his best compositions were written for the piano. He was a master of the piece d’occasion . Like Montaigne, he could turn a small moment into a delightful celebration. From a balloon ascension in New Orleans he fashioned “L’Extase.” Looking at a landscape painting by his friend Frederic Edwin Church, he wrote “The Andes.” “Maria la O” comemmorated a visit to one of Havana’s more sumptuous sporting houses. “Le Banjou” recalls nothing more complicated than how much fun it is to play the banjo. None of these pieces are profound any more than many of the works of Offenbach or Debussy are profound. That most of them are lost to contemporary concert programming is as much a reflection of twentieth-century American snobbery as it is of our high musical tastes.
European composers, however, saw Gottschalk’s melodies as a treasure trove of useful ideas. Bizet, who was to write the “Habanera,” first heard the form from Gottschalk and kept the American’s music in his own library. And Borodin’s notebooks make it clear that “Le Bananier” wound up in his “Polovetsian Dances.” Debussy’s Golliwog’s Cakewalk seems almost a transcription of Gottschalk’s music, and one observer traced Gottschalk’s themes as far afield as Verdi’s Aïda .