GOTTSCHALK AND CUBA: A Portrait of the first American Composer-Pianist

Louis Moreau Gottschalk. 1829-1869

Gottschalk’ s music is a detailed portrait of the world in which he lived. The New Orleans born Gottschalk broadened the Crescent City heritage to encompass not only jazz, but classical music. Although Gottschalk’s blending of jazz rhythms into classical compositions received brief international acclaim during his lifetime, the composer is relatively little-known today. He was the son of a Creole mother and a Jewish father who sent him to Paris at the age of 13 to study music. He brought for the first time to Europe a fusion of American folk music and Creole music, and surprised Hector Berlioz who called him “a true original.” After his debut in Paris at the age of 16, Chopin came backstage, shook his hand and remarked, “My son you will be the king of pianists.”

In his short forty year life he lived a glorious, triumphant and tragic existence. He travelled America by train nonstop during the Civil War years, was Abraham Lincoln’s favorite pianist, and chronicled some of the most interesting stories about the Civil War in his book, Notes of a Pianist. He spent a lot of time in the Caribbean and lived in Cuba on and off for six years and wrote some of his most inspired piano and orchestral pieces there.

In the fall of 1865 he had an affair with a young woman in Oakland, California, which resulted in his quickly leaving San Francisco by night on a ship bound for South America. The remaining four years of his life were spent in South America, composing, touring and conducting “monster” concerts. At times there would be 650 musicians making music with Gottschalk at the podium ! And it would not be unusual to have 40 pianos on the stage with two pianists on each piano ! He was a sensation and the biggest drawing card that part of the world had ever seen. He died from injuries suffered in an assault on his person in Rio de Janiero on December 18, 1869.
Jazz and ragtime were just around the corner. But the world forgot that they began with Gottschalk. It began to be noticed by musicologists around the 1940’s and 1950’s that the people being advanced as our first musicians were not; there was a first chapter missing in the history of American music. It was Gottschalk, waiting offstage like an ironic ghost. He had been waiting there for 100 years.

Louis Moreau Gottschalk, Creole Pianist and Composer from Louisiana, lived and travelled in Cuba and other Caribbean Islands from 1854 to 1862.

Gottschalk’s first voyage to Cuba was from 1854 to 1855. He met the most prominent Cuban pianist-composer, Nicolas Ruiz Espadero, who immediately befriended Gottschalk and played many concerts with him. He was the musician who would edit all of Gottschalk’s posthumous works and transcribed Gottschalk’s greatest work, Symphony Romantique, for two pianos. He introduced Gottschalk to the Cuban contradanza El Cocoye.

Gottschalk’s second voyage to Cuba was in 1857 when he stayed for several months. During this time he wrote The Last Hope. Then Gottschalk visited the Antilles for close to two years.
His third voyage to Cuba was from 1859 to 1862. During that time he wrote and performed many compositions. The world premiere of Symphony Romantique in two movements, Night in the Tropics and Fiesta Criolla, took place in Havana on February 17, 1860, at the Tacon Theater, the biggest theater in that hemisphere at that time. The performance included several orchestras, 650 musicians, with Gottshalk at the podium. His performance triggered an explosive emotional response – the audience in unison chanted, “the artist of the century, Gottschalk !” It is clear that Gottschalk experienced what the distinguished writer, Lafcadio Hearn, wrote in his book, Two Years in the French West Indies, “The terror of silence does not exist here – tropical night is full of voices – crickets, tree frogs, the enormous forest of life. The true life of nature in the tropics begins with the darkness and ends with the light.”

El Cocoye is an old popular Santiago de Cuba black folk melody elevated to national attention in 1836: The legend goes that a Spanish musician named Casmitjana heard the tune sung late at night by two famous mulatto women – Maria la Luz and Maria la O. Casmitjana arranged the melody for band – scandalizing the aristocracy, but delighting the populace, for until then no black music had been thought worthy of attention by the white musicians. The melody became a favorite, first in Santiago, then all over Cuba. Gottschalk composed his El Cocoye in 1854, eighteen years after the folk song became popular. Cuban pianists such as Cervantes also used the melody many years after Gottschalk. Gottschalk’s version was not published by Espadero until several years after Gottschalk’s death. The original title of Gottschalk’s El Cocoye is Grand Caprice Cubain, de Bravura, Opus 80.

During Gottschalk’s stay in Cuba for the six years on and off, he wrote 28 original compositions. All of the melodies in the compositions are original except for two works – El Cocoye and Escenas Campestras Cubanas. Rhythmic excitement gives Gottschalk’s compositions of this period their pronounced Cuban flavor. The musical form that captured Gottschalk’s imagination the most was the Cuban Contradanzas. Chopin captured the national traits of Poland in his mazurkas and polonaises. Gottschalk captured the traits of the dances of the West Indies, the music that exists among the Creoles of the Spanish Antilles.

Gottschalk left Cuba on January 8, 1862, for New York, leaving a legacy that influenced Cuban pianist-composers for many years to come.

Notes of a Pianist, by Louis Moreau Gottschalk.
Bamboula by Frederick Starr.
Gottschalk in Cuba by Libby Antarsh Rubin, doctoral dissertation, 1974.
The Piano Works of Louis Moreau Gottschalk, by Robert Offergeld.

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