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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
Even for a city that prided itself on being a preeminent center of European musical activity, the Parisian concert debut of Louis Moreau Gottschalk on April 2, 1845, was a singular occasion. Startlingly, the pianist was a youthful American, and, of course, it was well understood in Paris that Americans were devoid of cultural refinement. When the ballerina Fanny Elssler had announced her intention to tour the United States four years earlier, the Paris journal Charivari threw up its hands at the thought of such an exquisite artist showing herself to “these savages, these trans-Atlantic Arabs, these coarse, ill-mannered, thick-headed, bad-hearted descendants of renegades and rebels.”
Fifteen-year-old Gottschalk possessed none of those lamentable qualities. Born in New Orleans of a family with aristocratic pretensions, he was a model young gentleman, properly educated for the times and widely read in the literature of antiquity. Although he was somewhat delicate in appearance, he could fence a bit and he sat a horse well. His French, always better than his English, was as precise as his manners were courtly.
Nonetheless, he had known the sting of Parisian musical prejudice. Gottschalk had arrived in France, an eager thirteen-year-old, with a sheaf of hometown notices attesting to his prodigality on the piano, and had hoped to study at the Paris Conservatoire. But the director, Pierre Zimmermann, who felt Americans were only seriously interested in steam engines, refused to hear the boy audition on the grounds that anyone who had spent his formative years in the crude climate of the Americas was already beyond pianistic salvation. He told Gottschalk to go home and learn to become a mechanic.
Moreau remained in Paris, however, and continued his musical education privately. He studied piano with Camille Stamaty, and composition with Pierre Maleden of Limoges. His training lacked the cachet of the Conservatoire but it was thoroughly professional. Two of his fellow students were Charles Camille Saint-Saëns and Georges Bizet, who afforded him spirited competition.
After three years, Stamaty considered his American student ready to face the musical public. Following a few salon recitals in the homes of wealthy Parisian art patrons, Gottschalk was booked for a performance at the Salle Pleyel, the most luxurious concert hall in the city. The Parisian musical scene was small, and the word tended to get around when a particularly good talent—even if he was an American barbarian—was about to make an appearance. Personally invited by Stamaty, the audience that attended Gottschalk’s debut was socially distinguished and musically knowledgeable. They must have sensed they were in for something special when Frederic Chopin arrived to listen to the boy from Louisiana.
Gottschalk more than fulfilled the promise Stamaty held out. His debut was the kind of electrifying affair that had illuminated the pianistic world perhaps only a half-dozen times since Mozart established its traditions some seventy years before. By all accounts, Gottschalk cut a fine stage presence: modest and sympathetic with that aura of dreamy melancholy so favored by pianists of the time. His program was a demanding one that included Thalberg’s transcriptions of airs from Rossini’s Semiramide , a Liszt fantasy on Meyerbeer’s Robert le Diable , and Chopin’s Concerto in E Minor. Gottschalk’s playing was adjudged to be flawless. Then, as now, there were dozens of talented young pianists around who could play the notes, but Gottschalk had in addition that mysterious ability granted only to the great virtuosos to give a sense of tension and excitement to the playing of music with which the audience is already familiar. Hector Berlioz was to say later that Gottschalk’s playing “dazzles, astonishes. ” It was common to remark that when Gottschalk played, it sounded as if more than one person were at the keyboard. “The infantine simplicity of his smiling caprices, the charming ease with which he renders simple things,” wrote Berlioz, “seems to belong to a second individuality, distinct from that which characterizes his thundering energies.”
At the end of the concert Chopin threaded his way through the audience and went backstage to be introduced to the American prodigy. “Give me your hand, my boy,” Chopin said and kissed him in the European manner. “I predict you will become the king of pianists.”