Monday, June 24, 2013

Some "Notes" for the concert

In preparing for this Sunday's concert (3 P.M. at Faith UMC in Champaign, Illinois, if you are interested) here are some more materials I've been finding in my "research:"

Louis Moreau Gottschalk was one interesting fellow. Perhaps I've mentioned that already. According to the likes of Chopin, Liszt, and Berlioz, he was quite a composer and pianist in his teens, well before he found employment as a concert pianist in the middle of the American Civil war. By this time he had also achieved success touring South America. North America was his third continent, and he was still in his early thirties. Nevertheless, touring here was not a simple matter. There was that small matter of a war. In addition:

 "Adrian, Michigan. Infamous concert! [I made only] Seventy-eight dollars! The people say that they prefer "a good Negro show." They are furious at the price of admission--one dollar. A singular American characteristic! They insult us as if we forced them to pay....One dollar admission! It is the universal theme."

And of course, things got pretty monotonous.

"Everything is foreseen, everything is marked out, in my peregrinations. Thanks to the experience of my agent, I know in advance, within a few dollars, the amount of the receipts in a town of a given number of inhabitants. I know, with my eyes shut, every one of the inextricable cross-threads that form the network of railroads with which New England is covered....In my black suit at eight o'clock I salute my a quarter to nine they encore the Murmures eoliens. At half past nine they call again for the Berceuse, ten I carry off my patriotic audience to the belligerent accents of the Union fantasia; and at half-past ten I throw myself, exhausted and depoetized, into the prosaic arms of the blessed Morpheus...."

Of course, he could be pretty dramatic about it:

"Solitude, for me, is repose--is the absence of the thousand distractions of this unquiet, giddy existence to which my career of nomad artist condemns me. In solitude, in reveries, and in contemplation I find fertile sources of inspiration....Only then am I myself....For myself, who, because of a sickly and nervous nature, always have a propensity to melancholy, the stirring and noisy existence that the career of nomad virtuous imposes on me is that to which I have the greatest antipathy."

But for all that, the only thing worse than having to play was not being able to play:

"O human inconsistency! The piano, which has been a torment for me all week, possesses for me today (on a Sunday, when Sabbath laws forbade most activities) an irresistible charm. It is the charm of forbidden fruit, for, although it is permitted (by going to the bar through the back door) to take an indefinite number of brandy, whiskey, or gin cocktails, to play on the piano, except under certain psalmodic restrictions, is positively prohibited.  The harp perhaps might be tolerated—for David played on the harp—but the piano, fie!" 

Gottschalk goes on to relate a colorful incident from years earlier:

"...One Sunday at Cape May I sat down to practice a polka--the Forest Glade--which I was then composing. Just as I began, a violent thunderstorm burst of the hotel, and at the first flash of lightning several ladies and a clergyman, seen in the storm an unmistakable sign of divine wrath, came rapping at my door, imploring me to stop my profane, though anything but tempestuous, music. I now remember the scandalized countenances of those worthy people too distinctly to venture again on any such experiment."

Colorful anecdotes like this are part of what make Gottschalk such a good read. Even in the middle of the panic before Gettysburg, with the town in an uproar over the oncoming Confederates, and Gottschalk himself worried about capture or getting his pianos destroyed, he has to stop and make fun of a volunteer band in the town square:

"A voluntary military band (the only one in Williamsport) draws up in battle array on the principal square; is it necessary for me to say that it is composed of Germans (all the musicians in the United States are Germans)? There are five of them.  A cornet a piston with a broken-down constitution (I speak of the instrument), a cavernous trombone, an ophicleide too low, a clarinet too high, a sour-looking fifer—all of an independent and irascible temper, but united for the moment by their hatred of keeping time and their vigorous desire to cast off its yoke.  I must confess that they succeeded to such an extent that I am doubtful whether they played in a major or minor key." 

Gottschalk notes that in every audience there is, in addition to the "pretty battalion" of boarding school girls who have come to sigh over his sentimental compositions, which they all know by heart and can play (sort of), there is "the local Beethoven," with "uncombed hair, bushy beard, the amenity of a boar at bay to a pack of hounds. I know this type; it is found everywhere...It is time that many unknown musicians should be convinced that...soap is not incompatible with genius, and it is now proved that the daily use of a comb does not exercise any injurious influence on the lobes of the brain."

He has, of course, to please his public, much of which is from small towns, which is not going to make him any friends with the established musical culture in the large cities. But even he is disappointed to note that "the ears of many people are so little exercised that they recognize only two or three songs they have known from birth....and...there must be only the melody, without harmony, without variations, absolutely naked, as a fifer would play it, for them to recognize it. They least artifice, the least ornament, they lose the thread, are confused, and the complaints begin that there is no melody."

It is a difficult crowd to please at times, but then, their musical experience is not profound. In some cases, Gottschalk's recital is the first time anyone in his audience has ever heard a piano recital before. And sometimes...."The other evening, before the concert, an honest farmer, pointing to my  piano, asked me what that 'big accordion' was. He had seen square pianos and upright pianos, but the tail bothered him. Eight or nine days ago , at Zanesville, a charming young girl and her honorable mamma spent the whole concert watching my feet. They did not know the use of the pedals and saw in my movements only a kind of queer trembling and odd, rudimentary dance steps that for two hours and a quarter afforded them an inexhaustible source of amusement."

Gottschalk is trying to be nice about it. He knows you can't make fun of your audience if you want their adoration, and their dollars. (Don't make fun of Zanesville. My grandmother use to live kind of nearby.) Besides, he is a pioneer. How much can you expect? And, within a few years, he writes "I am daily astonished at the rapidity with which the taste for music is developed and is developing in the United States. At the time of my first return from Europe I was constantly deploring the want of public interest for pieces purely sentimental; the public listened with indifference; in order to interest it, it became necessary to astound it; grand movements, tours de force, and noise alone had the privilege in piano music....from whatever cause American taste is becoming purer, and with what remarkable rapidity....We should all, however narrow may be our sphere of action, bear our part in the progressive movement of civilization, and I cannot help feeling a pride in having contributed within the modest limits of my powers in extending through our country the knowledge of music."

In the meantime, he has to put up with strange critiques like the one from the lady in Auburn who said 'What a deafening racket he makes with his piano.  There is no music in it.' I have often heard others speak of it, who said that I always played too softly and that I did not make enough noise.  O critics! You would be very annoying if you were not so amusing!"

Then there is the bad food in the hotels, the wake-up call which consists of banging a gong at six in the morning (he hates that!) the superstitious and sometimes vituperative behavior of the people he meets en route, not to mention the time his train is buried in snow for a couple of days, or when the priest at Sunday Mass can't stay in one key, or when he nearly gets arrested for not paying the hall deposit before his concert in a small town, or when he goes to take a nap in a rear car on the train and discovers he is surrounded by embalmed bodies!

We know all of this, of course, because Gottschalk wrote it all down, in twelve notebooks he kept with him as he travelled, which became "Notes of a Pianist," published by his sister after his death. Even his method of describing them is entertaining:

"I am fond of my notebooks...they never leave me. They are like an intimate companion for me, a mute confidant who has an immense advantage over all the railroad friends I ever have met, that of hearing me without my being obliged to strain my voice over the sharp summits of the highest note, as it listens to me and never interrupts me. It is discreet (of what friends could as much be said?) to the extent that, had you under your eyes the ten or twelve notebooks that I have filled from the Mississippi to the St. Lawrence, and from New York to the Mormon Desert, they would take great care to prevent you from discovering anything other than undecipherable hieroglyphics; every one of their pages looks like the side of an obelisk. The jolts of the road and the haste with which I write assist, it is true, marvelously in making them discreet."

It probably also helped that they were originally in French!

In any case, Gottschalk's notebooks have provided much amusement, much companionship and camaraderie  and, of course, great material for a (lecture) concert--much more, in fact, than would fill many concerts.

Next week, Gottschalk turns war correspondent in Pennsylvania before the Battle of Gettysburg. 

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