Sunday, May 31, 2015

Life in America through the eyes of Gottschalk

As a child, I remember sitting in the tiny lobby of the Austin Civic Ballet studio waiting for my sister to finish her ballet class (this was a weekly occurrence). A pianist provided the music for the class, and I heard so much great music every time I was there. I remember hearing the ballet director, Eugene Slavin (rest his soul) yell out to the pianist, "play the Gottschalk". I had never heard of Louis Moreau Gottschalk, and I did not know any of his music. The jaunty, lively tunes the pianist proceeded to play were very enjoyable and fun.
Louis Moreau Gottschalk was an American pianist and composer who lived from May 8, 1829 to December 18, 1969. He was a regarded as one of the world's greatest concert pianists, and toured extensively throughout his career. I confess that I until recently, I have not listened to much of his music. He has not been on my musical radar, I guess you could say....until last year when I heard a tribute to him on the radio on May 8th, celebrating his life on the anniversary of his birth. I began reading about him and listening to his music.
Gottschalk kept a journal during the years he toured North and South America during the 1850's and 60's. His observations of people, places, and life during this time in history is fascinating. By his own calculation, he traveled 95,000 miles and gave over 1100 performances between 1862 and 1865 alone. If ever there was a "road warrior",  he certainly was one. He vividly describes the hardships of travel at that time: long delays, cold, heat, drunken soldiers, bad food, bad name it. His journal was published in 1881 by his wife.

Here are some of his memorable observations and reflections:

Chopin: In 1842, his parents sent him to Paris to study music. By 1845 he had built a reputation as a prodigy and word spread around Paris of his talent. He gave a concert that year that was attended by none-other than Frederic Chopin. After the concert, Chopin met Gottschalk and put his hands on his head and said "Give me your hand, my child; I predict that you will become the king of pianists."

Beethoven: Gottschalk had some strong views about Beethoven that I thought were interesting: "Beethoven, taken as a symphonist, is the most inspired among composers and the one who composes best for orchestra. As a composer for the piano he falls below mediocrity.- the least pianist of any intelligence, in our days, writes infinitely better than Beethoven did". Hmmmmm.....I have to say that I don't agree with Mr. Gottschalk at all on this point.

Pianos: "A newspaper attacks me because I play exclusively on Chickering's pianos, and thinks it shocking that I place the maker's name on a plate that decorates the side exposed to public view." "Then he should also know that Thalberg, for the twenty-five years that he has given concerts in Europe, has never played upon Erard's pianos. That Chopin has never laid fingers upon any others than those of Pleyel. That Liszt, in France, in Switzerland, in England, in Italy, in Germany, in Turkey, has always played Erard's to the exclusion of all other pianos. Erard's, whose tone is robust, strong, slightly metallic, is adapted exclusively to the powerful action of Liszt. Pleyel's, less sonorous but poetical and, so to speak, languishing and feminine, corresponds to the elegiac style and frail organization of Chopin. I play Chickering's, not because all others are bad, but because I like their tone, fine and delicate, tender and poetic, because I can obtain, in the modifications of their sound, tints more varied than those of other instruments."

Lincoln: "Concert at Washington.The President of the United States and his lady are to be there. I have reserved seats for them in the front row.The Secretary of State, Mr. Seward, accompanies them. Mrs. Lincoln has a very ordinary countenance. Lincoln is remarkably ugly, but has an intelligent air, and his eyes have a remarkable expression of goodness and mildness."

John Wilkes Booth: "There is no longer any doubt Lincoln is dead. We do not know the details of the horrible outrage-the name only of the assassin is mentioned-Wilkes Booth. I remember having seen him play a year ago at Cleveland. I was struck at the time with the beauty of his features, and at the same time by a sinister expression of his countenance."

News of Lincoln's Assassination: While sailing to San Francisco on a steamer called the Constitution, they met another ship named the Golden City whose captain comes aboard with news: "Richmond is taken. Lee has surrendered. Lincoln has been assassinated."

St. Louis: "Arrived at the steamboat whose saloon is already filled with soldiers, workmen, dirty women, and dirty children packed together. Crowded, suffocated, we manage to force ourselves into the midst of this crowd, but the atmosphere is so charged with the exhalations of those crammed into so small a space the we prefer the risk of being frozen to that of being poisoned. St. Louis is a sad-looking city." "St. Louis is the capital of Missouri, and contains about two hundred thousand inhabitants. It is a dull and tiresome town."

Cleveland: "Nothing can give you an idea of the gloom with which it inspires me. Sunday is always a splenetic day in all Protestant countries, but in Cleveland it is enough to to make you commit suicide."

Toledo: "Nothing interesting. Audience stupid."

Madison, WI: "This town is hardly more than twelve years old, and nevertheless is already remarkable."

Indianapolis: The State of Indiana has a formidable party in favour of the rebellion. One of the soldiers coughed horribly. I offered him a lozenge, which has cured me of a cold from which I was suffering greatly for some days. He accepted it with thanks. At the moment of swallowing it, one of his comrades said to me, distrustfully, "Ah ha! are you not a secessionist! We shall die soon enough without your coming to poison us."

Louisville: "I met at Louisville an inspector of cavalry, an old lieutenant in the Belgian Guards. He has already inspected in three months he has been in Kentucky fifteen new regiments of cavalry. The personnel and equipage he told me are magnificent. Our artillery is also immense, and I do not believe that finer could be found in Europe."

Traveling by train: "I live on the railroad-my home is somewhere between the baggage car and the last car of the train."

Fallen soldiers: "The old man frequently wiped his eyes with his handkerchief. The conductor informed us that he was the father of a young officer killed in the last battle (Pittsburg Landing) whose body was expected, and was about to be received by his family and friends.....I never shall easily forget that poor old father, who, with trembling lips and eyes red with tears, thought that he concealed from us his grief."

One of my favorite compositions by Gottschalk is his Grand Tarantelle for piano. You can hear it here:

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