#246

LOUIS MOREAU GOTTSCHALK

THE BANJO

ROBERT AND TIRAJE RUCKMAN, DUO-PIANISTS

Louis Moreau Gottschalk (1829-1869) was an American composer and pianist. He was perhaps the most colorful American musician thus far—and that, of course, is saying a lot.

He was born in New Orleans to a Jewish London businessman and a Creole mother. He was regarded as a piano prodigy and made his New Orleans debut at the age of 11. Two years later, he went to Europe with his father, seeking entrance to the Paris Conservatoire. Very interestingly, the conservatory rejected him not on artistic grounds, but on the basis of his being an AMERICAN—nothing artistic could come from America, they said! Case closed.

However, while still in Paris, he gave a concert at the Salle Pleyel—which was Paris’ foremost concert hall—and it was very well received. Chopin, who was in attendance, predicted that Gottschalk would become “the king of pianists.” Even the great Franz Liszt was mightily impressed. When Gottschalk returned to the states some years later, he began a lifetime of extensive touring. He was always on the move! He had a real affinity for the music and culture of the Caribbean, and Central and South America, and he spent much time there, soaking up the musical atmosphere in multiple concert tours.

Gottschalk traveled so much that it is difficult to say he had a “home” town. When he was not touring, he did take time out to live in New York City. He was not a traditional teacher by any stretch, but when he heard a very young Venezuelan virtuoso pianist, Teresa Carreno, he took her on as a student. A year later, Carreno played at the White House for President Abraham Lincoln, and subsequently became known as the “”Valkyrie of the piano”. Her whole life, she credited her success to her brief studies with Gottschalk.

Gottschalk himself became known as the greatest pianist in the New World, playing primarily his own compositions. By 1865—at the age of 37—he had already traveled nearly 100,000 miles by train and given over 1,000 concerts. But his U.S. touring came to an abrupt end that same year. While briefly based in San Francisco, he had an affair with a young (female) seminary student. The resulting scandal was all over the national papers. In order to avoid prosecution, Gottschalk fled the country, never to return. He lived all over South America, but primarily in Brazil.

He died at the age of 40 in Rio de Janeiro. The story that circulated for decades—and still circulates—is that he collapsed at the piano, during a concert. While this may be true, the likely immediate cause was the build-up of quinine in Gottschalk’s body—he was self-medicating to fight malaria.

One cannot consider Gottschalk’s piano music to be serious art music, despite his impressive output. In addition to reams of throw-away piano pieces,Gottschalk even ventured into writing symphonic music. To give one an idea of his over-the-top approach to everything, in his best-known symphony—subtitled “A Night in the Tropics”—calls for 150 symphonic players, an additional brass band, and a large array of Cuban-African percussion instruments. The second movement is a wild orchestral setting of a samba!

A Gottschalk favorite with audiences (and pianists) is his The Banjo, in which he imitates on the piano the sounds of mid-century American banjo playing, which he would have heard not only in New Orleans where he grew up, but virtually everywhere he traveled. The piece is a series of variations of a repeating phrase in a style that was popular all over the Caribbean, a style inherited from West Africa.

The Banjo has become a very popular encore piece for pianists—and duo-pianists. This arrangement, performed by Tiraje and myself, is transcribed by Jerome Moross.