Louis Moreau Gottschalk: Biography & Music

Instructor: Charis Duke

Charis has taught college music and has a master's degree in music composition.

Louis Moreau Gottschalk was an American virtuoso pianist and composer. He traveled extensively and became the first American pianist to achieve an international status. This lesson will discuss his life and music.

At a Paris Salon

It's a lovely summer night in Paris -- in 1850. A group of well-to-do music lovers are gathered in a salon, listening to a piano recital. The music is passionate, filled with exotic melodies evocative of strange lands. Overcome with emotion, one by one, the ladies in the room being to faint. It's that American, Louis Moreau Gottschalk, showing off at the piano again!

A New Orleans Boy

Louis Moreau Gottschalk was born in New Orleans, Louisiana on May 8, 1829. His father Edward was a businessman from London of Jewish descent. His mother Aimee was from a white Creole family. He spent part of his childhood living with his maternal grandmother, Grandmother Buslé, who was a native of Saint-Domingue (now Haiti). This interesting cultural mix at home combined with the fertile New Orleans musical environment produced an intelligent, musical boy filled with creative ideas.

Royal Street in New Orleans. Gottschalk lived on this street.
New Orleans

Young Moreau began playing the piano at age three. He listened to his mother singing opera arias by Meyerbeer and reproduced them on the piano. At age seven he played organ for the Catholic Mass at the Cathedral of Saint-Louis. At age thirteen his father decided to send the boy to Europe to receive better training in piano.

A Teenager in Europe

Gottschalk applied to the Paris Conservatory and was rejected without an audition. The director believed there could be no talent from America. Suitable tutors were found, and Gottschalk studied piano and composition privately with some of the best teachers in Paris.

Gottschalk was very good at making friends and connections and was soon a part of the Parisian social scene. He met the composers Chopin and Berlioz. Chopin complimented his piano playing and his early compositions. Berlioz became his champion and friend, supporting his music and encouraging his efforts. This was quite an accomplishment for a teenager from New Orleans.

In Paris, Gottschalk began performing his own compositions. This music was infused with New Orleans influences. Creole melodies and bits of French style were woven into virtuosic piano pieces such as Le Bananier and Bamboula. The Parisian audiences were thrilled with this exotic music. Gottschalk's music was inherently suited for the Parisian salon. The salon was a social and intellectual gathering in the homes of the wealthy for the purpose of listening to and discussing the latest developments in music, literature, and the arts.

Louis Moreau Gottschalk
Portrait of Gottschalk

Back in the USA

After touring and concertizing extensively throughout Europe, Gottschalk returned to the United States in 1853 and made his New York City debut. Back in his home turf, he composed pieces he knew would touch the American public. These sentimental salon pieces had titles such as The Dying Poet and The Last Hope, Religious Meditation. Tremendously popular in his lifetime, these works have not stood the test of time well. They are generally considered dated and trite today, while his Creole and ethnic inspired music is still highly regarded.

Gottschalk Hits the Road

His American reputation secure, Gottschalk went on tour. He traveled throughout the United States, the Caribbean, the West Indies, and Cuba, playing his music to appreciative audiences everywhere he went. He found more inspiration for his music in these sunny islands, such as his Cuban-themed symphony A Night in the Tropics.

Gottschalk returned to the United States occasionally for concerts, particularly from 1862-1865. During the Civil War, despite his Louisiana upbringing, he openly supported the Union and concertized across the Union in its behalf. His concerts ended in San Francisco, where an unfortunate event with a young lady from the Oakland Female Seminary forced him to get on a boat bound for South America.

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