Monday, June 10, 2013

Charming, for sure

One of the reasons for playing a concert devoted to the works of Louis Moreau Gottschalk is that he was such an interesting fellow. Born in New Orleans in 1829, he soon made his way to Europe where, as an adolescent, he wowed Fred Chopin and the boys (Liszt, Berlioz et. al) with his original and untamed American music, then went to South America where he organized concerts for hundreds of performers, sometimes employing 40 pianos along the way. All of this happened even before he got around to touring the northern United States while there was a bit of a war on.

One of the reasons we know so much about it is that he was also a prolific writer of words. "Researching" for this concert gave me an excuse to re-read "Notes of a Pianist," a volume of his writings, some published during his lifetime, some jotted down in a notebook for future publication when his death intervened. His sister later compiled the contents into a book and sent it into the world with the help of a poor translation from the French original by her husband. (That's right, Gottschalk spoke French--and English--and Spanish.)

Even before Gottschalk gets to America, he is living a strange double life. When he is not "Whirl[ing] in that monotonous and agitated circle that is called concert life" he is wandering among the villages, "seriously resolved to go no father; or detained in a village where the piano was unknown, by the ties of an affection with which my fingers had nothing to do...I forgot the world, and lived only for two large black eyes, which veiled themselves with tears whenever I spoke of beginning my vagabond course again, living as the bird sings, as the flower opens, as the brook flows, forgetful of the past, careless of the future."

Ok, if you want to gag now, I'll understand. Here Gottschalk paints himself rather proudly as a Don Juan, although later he will partially apologize for it to his American audiences: "All of this is frightfully immoral, I know, but life in the savannas of the tropics, in the midst of a half-civilized and voluptuous race, cannot be that of a London cockney, a Parisian ilder, or an American Presbyterian."

For Gottschalk, as to the Romantic movement in general, a sense of wandering and aimless freedom was very important, as was the charm of the exotic, and Gottschalk vows from the first pages that he is a travel who will immerse himself in each locale, deploring those who travel but never, in their hearts or habits, truly leave home behind.

And if you find his lofty Romanticism insufferable, he can at times be funny. As Mark Twain was later in the century to write that "rumors of [his] death [had] been greatly exaggerated," so Gottschalk has to deal with the inevitable premature obituary in the newspapers--papers, which, in their haste to get the news to you first, occasionally could be blown a trifle off course (imagine that!):

"I wish to speak of my death. This sad event took place at Santiago three months ago. I was carried off in three days by a frightful attack of back vomit; it is the newspaper Savana la Grande that tells it; but the Revue de Villa Clara, without doubt better informed, makes me succomb to an aneurism of the heart, which I much prefer, the aneurism being much more poetical than the vomit."

Gottschalk's actual death, in Rio in 1869, apparently was caused by malaria, peritonitis, an overdose of quinine, or a ruptured abscess of the abdomen, depending on who is telling the tale, but it began with a collapse on stage shortly after playing a piece of his called "Morte!" (she is dead) which is all Romantic enough; legend, which admits no lengthy delays, removed the last two weeks of Gottschalk's decline and has him dying on the stage itself.

These things bookend his Civil War experiences, which is the period for the concert, though some of the pieces I'll be playing were written earlier. I'll be reading several of his observations as we go along, particularly the dispatches shortly before the Battle of Gettysburg, when he became an unwitting war correspondent for a few days!

The pianist's sudden departure from the United States in 1865 is also the stuff of tales; enmeshed in a scandal involving two young seminary girls he was censured in the local papers, and fearing his reputation was finished, boarded a steamship in the dead of night and left the United States forever. He may have been framed by a local operatic impresario who was an artistic rival, and a letter that surfaced in 1984 from Gottschalk maintains his innocence. Still, the Bohemian bachelor, who makes several references in "notes" to the pretty young girls who attended his concerts as "face to make one play false notes," might have had more of a way with the ladies than was good for him.

At any rate, faces of all kinds are welcome at Faith UMC, 1719 S. Prospect, Champaign, Illinois, on Sunday, June 30th at 3 P.M. There will be plenty of piano music, and more of Gottschalk in his own words.

Gottschalk: O My Charmer, Spare Me!

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