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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
The piece that did Gottschalk’s memory the most harm in America was “The Last Hope,” a lachrymose ballad about a young lady who takes a long time dying, and then, while the bereaved are mourning her passing, their attention is called to the heavenly reward that we all desire. This was a traditional sentiment much used by poets and composers of the day, but Gottschalk’s treatment was the sentimental ballad to end all sentimental ballads. For generations “The Last Hope” was approached only by “The Maiden’s Prayer” as the one mandatory piece of sheet music on the piano of every home in America that aspired to gentility. Then fashions changed, and Gottschalk’s music, which once had stood for the best this country could produce, became a national embarrassment.
But Americans today have begun to realize that there is something irrepressible about Gottschalk’s music that refuses to be perpetually shut away. When the distinguished American pianist Leonard Pennario was casting about for “something to do for the Bicentennial,” he came across some pieces of Gottschalk’s old music. “I was astonished when I read them,” Pennario said. “They were bright and witty with a universal appeal. And yet, except as music for the ballet Cakewalk , I had never heard them in concert. They are fiendishly difficult to play, which may be one reason so few pianists are playing them today. You have to hit all those notes without slurring and make it all seem effortless. But when you do it correctly, the effect is wonderful. ‘Le Banjou’ is just about the perfect encore piece. The house goes wild every time they hear it.”
If Mr. Pennario’s recent success in performing Gottschalk’s music and with the two all-Gottschalk albums he has recorded is any indication, we may yet see a revival of interest in the work of America’s first important composer. After more than one hundred years of neglect, Gottschalk’s music still has the power to bring audiences into the concert halls and then lift them out of their seats—two qualities that can not stay out of musical fashion forever.