Before his death at the age of forty in 1869, Louis Moreau Gottschalk achieved a stunning list of 'firsts'. He was the first American composer to be hailed in
Europe; the first American virtuoso (on piano) to be saluted by the likes of Chopin; the first American musician to erase the hard line dividing 'serious' from 'popular' genres; the first to introduce American themes into European classical music; the first Pan-American artist in any field; and among the first American artists to champion such causes as abolitionism, public education and popular democracy. Above all, he was the first to capture the syncopated music of South Louisiana and the Caribbean in enduring works that anticipate ragtime and jazz by half a century.
Who was this phenomenon? Born in New Orleans in 1829, he was the son of a Jewish businessman from London and a colourful and capricious white Creole woman whose family had fled the slave revolt that swept the island of Saint-Domingue (Haiti) during the French Revolution. Steeped in New Orleans's rich operatic heritage (the Crescent City had two opera companies before New York had one), young 'Moreau', as he was called, was sent as a boy to further his studies in Paris Before his twentieth birthday he had stunned the salons frequented by Liszt, Thalberg and Chopin with brilliant and moving compositions that evoked the Creole songs he had absorbed from his family circle.
Gottschalk, like Chopin or Dvorak, was not content simply to incorporate folk material into his works. In the process of composition, he transformed his raw material into pieces that are alternatively sentimental, bracingly raucous, or darkly brooding. Sometimes, as in the quotation from the popular nursery song included here as part of the medley O! ma charmante, the musical material even transformed from major to minor, changing its emotional tone entirely. Most of his symphonic works, demanding pieces for piano, operatic fragments, patriotic works and art songs are imbued with a tender lyricism that exudes the musical bouquet of the tropics. An ardent Unionist during the Civil War, he nonetheless saw himself, and was seen by others, as the 'Chopin of the Creoles'.
Conductor Richard Rosenberg has captured this essence in a beguiling and diverse selection of Gottschalkiana. Here is the first recording of Gottschalk's Symphonie romantique, subtitled A Night in the Tropics, based on the composer's own orchestral score, now preserved at the New York Public Library. In the second movement it features an unlikely and arrestiug fugue based on a syncopated Cubau theme.
Here, too, are adaptatious of Gottschalk pieces by his friends and self-proclaimed disciples Sidney Lambert (1838-1909), Lucien Lambert fils (1858-1945) and Nicolas Ruiz Espadero (1832-1890). The last, a formidably proficient Cuban friend of Gottscha1k's, transcribed the Louisianian's Tarantelle, Op. 67. No.5 for winds, strings and piano. Hearing this work, offered here for the first time ever on CD, one must wonder whether Gottschalk did not himself participate in the project during the months before his final departure from Havana in 1862.
And here, finally, are several of Gottschalk's virtuoso compositions for piano, sympathetically transcribed for orchestra by the gifted Jack Elliott, who was commissioned by the American Ballet Theater to adapt a group of Gottschalk's eminently danceable pieces for use on the ballet stage. What a pity Lynn Taylor-Corbett's choreography is not also included!
The compositions offered here are culled from all phases of Gottschalk's enormously diverse career. He spent years concertizing throughout the United States, breaking new ground for America by offering entire programmes of his own compositions. No snob, he would offer up the same repertoire to Ohio farmers or Nevada gold-miners as he would to Bostonians. After being falsely but successfully framed by musical enemies in San Francisco, he fled to South America, where he spent the years 1865-69. Just as he was on the verge of returning, and just as he was about to realise his lifelong dream of devoting his days fully to composition, he died unexpectedly in Brazil of a ruptured appendix. To our good fortune, fresh compositions continued to flow from his pen down to the last month of his life.
Frederick Starr, Author of: Bamboula! The Life and Times of Louis Moreau Gottschalk (Oxford, 1996)
In the course of a multi-year project to revive the music of the all-but-forgotten 'Creole Romantic' composers (including Edmond and Eugene Dede, and
Charles, Sidney and Lucien Lambert), I also sought to clear the cobwebs that had settled on works of the best-known among them, Louis Moreau Gottschalk. That he was lionized during his lifetime (an Elvis Presley of the Victorian era?) did not rescue his music from posthumous distortions or a century-long neglect.
Gottschalk's A Night in the Tropics (1859) had only been performed since his death in condensed and 'corrected' versions. My reconstruction of this work is based on the composer's autograph manuscript, with instrumental forces not quite as large as those employed at Gottschalk's own performances (which featured over 650 musicians) but quite large nonetheless. It retains Gottschalk's unusual voice leading and notation. I believe that the meticulous care Gottschalk took in consistently adding rests and dotted rhythms is a key to the 'tropical' passion he sought to evoke. The arrangement of this symphony for two pianos by Gottschalk's friend and colleague, Nicolas Ruiz Espadero, provided the basis of my orchestration of the lost forty-two bars at the end of the orchestral score I incorporated the sound of 'harmonieflautas' at the end of the first movement (based on Gottschalk's own account of where and how it was employed), using an antique South American concertina. In the final movement of A Night in the Tropics, Gottschalk indicated only the first measure of the Afro-Cuban percussion, using the notation 'Bamboula'. He fully expected the ensemble to improvise the remainder of that samba movement in a manner that places it as a sort of 'missing link' between nineteenth-century concert music and a musical language that would soon evolve into that of Jazz
ReviewsRichard Rosenberg leads the Hot Springs Music Festival Orchestra in a performance whose 'Festa Criolla' rattles the roof. ...This is mandatory American repertory. - Joseph Horowitz,