Wednesday, July 3, 2013


At 2 p.m. on the afternoon of July 3, 1863, nine infantry brigades under the command of General Longstreet made a desperate charge on the union lines. It became known as "Pickett's Charge," named for one of the three Generals who led the charge under Longstreet, and it has gone down in Civil War annals as perhaps the turning point in the war.

On Sunday I played a concert devoted to the works of Civil War pianist Louis Moreau Gottschalk, a fascinating fellow who toured the United States throughout the war, and wrote about it in twelve notebooks he kept with him which were eventually published. At the concert I read from them between numbers. They were often very funny, as in his takes on his audiences and his frustrations with Sabbath prohibitions. But in the middle of June 1863, as the Battle of Gettysburg neared, Gottschalk became a sort of embedded reporter, and produced a very curious bit of source material for historians. It was an eyewitness account of the evacuation of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and preparations to meet the Rebel army by those called to fight. After reading a greatly condensed account, reproduced here, I concluded the concert with "Union," a piece which Gottschalk wrote in 1862, which recalls "Yankee Doodle," "Hail, Columbia," and "The Star Spangled Banner." This last is marked "Melancholy" and is played slowly and quietly. It was a great question at the time whether the Union would survive--Gottschalk gives voice to that thought in his journal in 1862. A year later, Abraham Lincoln would enshrine that question in the opening of his Gettysburg Address. Even Yankee Doodle shows up at first in a minor key. It is only at the end, after the marching soldiers, the trumpets, the drums, the dramatic silence, that Yankee Doodle and Hail Columbia are heard together in what sounds a bit like the 1812 Overture composed for the piano. To our modern sensibilities it may be a bit over the top, but imagine hearing it in 1863!

I'm going to post the portions of Gottschalk's account that I read at the concert, and then invite you to listen to "Union" at the end. My audience found it riveting; certainly this is a man who can give you a good sense of the chaos unfolding around him, the fear, the drama--even a few humorous asides. Here it is:

Williamsport, Pa., Monday, June 15, 1863

4 P.M. The town is all in commotion.  A dispatch has been received announcing the invasion of the state by three columns of Rebels marching on the capital. The dispatch is placarded on all the street corners. You can easily imagine the agitation caused by the news.

5 P.M. Another dispatch from the Governor of Pennsylvania, calling all able-bodied citizens to arms.  The Confederates, says the dispatch, have seized Martinsburg and are making forced marches on Hagerstown. This last town is only forty-five miles from the state capital.

I go out into the streets.  The crowds multiply and increase every moment.  I pass again before the shop of the fruit milliner: her hats full of strawberries and her beribboned baskets still are there, but the poor woman appears terribly frightened.

[I love how, even in the midst of the panic unfolding around him and surely in his own heart, Gottschalk is able to stop for a moment and make fun of a pick-up band:]

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.

[but he digresses:]

Fresh dispatches received excite the greatest consternation. The confederates are marching on Harrisburg. The crowd is stirred up; patriotic meetings are organized. An old gentleman in black clothes, with a large officer’s scarf around his waist, harangues many of his friends from the porch of the hotel.  The band strikes up and marches through the streets, filling the people with military spirit, thanks to the strains, more noisy than harmonious, of this performing cohort.

With all this, the chances for the concert this evening are rather dubious.  The receipts, which promised famously this morning, suddenly are paralyzed.

11 P.M. I played this evening, after all, and before a very respectable audience, which listened with marked interest and a more sustained attention than I always meet with in the audiences of small towns. My little piece entitled The Union, was much applauded; it suited the moment.

Williamsport, Midnight, June 15, 1863

I suggested to Strakosch that the concert announced for tomorrow at Harrisburg had better be given up. It is evident that people who expect every moment to be bombarded are not in the state of mind to hear Cradle Songs, Aelian Murmurs, etc., to say nothing of the risk we might run by rushing into the lion’s den. But the prospect of a good house and the possibility that the rumors of invasion were exaggerated made him turn a deaf ear to me.

[that man is an agent!]

I leave tomorrow morning for Harrisburg.

Making all allowance for exaggeration, there is no longer any doubt that the Rebels are advancing on the capital, and I begin to think that, unless it be part of the plan of Strakosch to make me play before General Jenkins and his staff, our concert tomorrow will hardly come off.

[Don't forget, Gottshalk is a Southerner who has taken a loyalty oath to the North. If the Rebels captured him, I don't think they'd give him four-star treatment, exactly.]

In the [train] cars on the road to Harrisburg.
Hagerstown is definitely in possession of the Confederates. The governor asked the people to put before their doors all empty barrels that they may have to dispose of; they will use them on the fortifications to be thrown up at Harrisburg.  All along the road we see farmers under arms, in battle array and doing military drill. They all seem to want to obey the command of the governor, who orders all able-bodied men to the field to meet the enemy, and to take the Susquehanna as the line for battle.

A traveler we picked up at the last station assures us that the Confederate army is not more than thirty miles from Harrisburg.  Everybody is frightened. Strakosch begins to see his mistake.

It is ten o’clock in the morning. The train continues to advance at full speed toward Harrisburg—that is to say, toward Jenkins, for the city must be attacked tonight, if it is not taken already. What shall we do? As for the concert, it is out of the question; but ourselves, our trunks—my pianos—what is to become of us in all this confusion?

1 P.M. A mile this side of Harrisburg the road is completely obstructed by freight trains, wagons of all sorts, and in fine by all the immense mass of merchandise, etc., which for the last twelve hours has been concentrated near the town to avoid its capture or burning by the rebels. The train stops at the middle of the bridge over the Susquehanna—why? The anxiety increases. Can you conceive of anything more terrible than the expectation of some vague, unknown danger? Some passengers have sat upon the floor so as to be sheltered from bullets in case the train should be fired upon.

One hour of anxiety, during which all the women, while pretending to be dead with fright, do not cease talking and making the most absurd conjectures.  I myself am only slightly comforted, and the idea of a journey to the South at this time is not at all attractive. But the train standing in the middle of the bridge, the silence, the unknown, the solitude that surrounds us, the river whose deep and tremulous waves murmur beneath our feet, and, above all, our ignorance of what is taking place in front and what awaits us at the station—is not all this enough to worry us?

Tired of this suspense, I decide to get out of the car. Strakosch, Madame Amalia Patti, and I go toward the station, which we are assured is only a walk of twenty minutes.  We find at the entrance to the depot piles, no mountains, of trunks blocking the way. One of the mountains has been tunneled by a frightened locomotive. Disemboweled trunks disgorge their contents, which charitable souls gather up with a zeal more or less disinterested.  The conductor points out to me a pickpocket, an elegantly dressed young man moving quietly around with his hands behind his back.

What luck! I have just caught a glimpse of my two pianos—the cowardly mastodons—(Chickering forgive me!) snugly lying in a corner and in perfect health. These two mastodons, which Chickering made expressly for me, follow me in all my peregrinations.  The tails of these monster pianos measure three feet in width. Their length is ten feet; they have seven and a half octaves, and despite all this formidable appearance possess a charming and obedient docility to the least movement of my fingers.

I acknowledge that my heart beat at the idea of leaving these two brave companions of my life exposed to the chances of a bombardment or an attack by assault. Poor pianos! Perhaps tomorrow you will have lived! You will probably serve to feed the fine bivouac fire of some obscure Confederate soldier, who will see your harmonious bowels consumed with an indifferent eye, having no regard for the three hundred concerts that you have survived and the fidelity with which you have followed me in my Western campaigns.

[I moved to the piano as I spoke the last two paragraphs. Only a pianist can understand the angst in Gottschalk's "voice"--on the other hand, it is a bit funny, particular when the other possibilities include getting killed or captured.]

2 P.M. A battery of artillery passes at full gallop. We are crushed in the midst of the crowd…. The rebels, the dispatches announce, are 18 miles away. All the shops are closed, and most of the houses from garret to cellar.

“Decidedly our concert is done for!” exclaims in a piteous voice my poor Strakosch, who has just returned from a voyage of discovery.  The reflection is a rather late one and proves that my excellent friend and agent is a hopeful youth and trusts to the last… that something will “turn up.”

Old men, women, and children are leaving the city.  A train left this morning carrying off many thousand refugees. In a few hours our position has become very critical. We cannot advance, and I fear that our retreat will be cut off.  A militia regiment passes at quickstep; it is going to the front. They are, for the most part, young men from 14 to 18 years old.  They murmur greatly against Philadelphia, which, being the principal city in the state (numbering six hundred thousand inhabitants) has not yet sent one regiment of its National Guard to defend the seat of government, while the distant states of New Jersey, New York, and even Rhode Island already have fifteen or twenty thousand men on the road to Harrisburg and the valley of the Cumberland.

A train being announced to leave for Philadelphia in an hour, we run to the station. Strakosch will remain behind to search for our trunks, which have been missing these two hours. My tuner has lost his head; the two mastodons of Chickering’s have disappeared, and the express company declines to be responsible for them. Too obstinate Strakosch, why in the world did he make us come to Harrisburg?

Gottschalk spent the next two weeks touring New England, and fortunately managed to sit out the actual Battle of Gettysburg!

Monday, July 1, 2013

100 years ago today

We interrupt our regularly scheduled series on composer and pianist Louis Moreau Gottschalk and pass up the opportunity to reflect on the 150th anniversary of the first day of the Battle of Gettysburg to offer up an anniversary of a different sort today. We'll get to Gettysburg on Wednesday. By the way, thank you to all of you who were at my concert yesterday.

It isn't often that a composer puts a date on their manuscript. Most don't--some, more recent, are pretty consistent about doing this, which will save future musicologists a lot of work, and torpedo their chances of constructing interesting theories about their chronology, for which I'd like to say on their behalf yeah, thanks a lot, guys!  

But some time ago, I happened to notice that a peculiar little set of three piano pieces by composer Erik Satie sports such dates. The first is dated June 30th. I was busy giving a completely unrelated concert yesterday. The second of the set proclaims its birth on "July 1, 1913," which happens to be a Monday, and thus conveniently lines up with our regular blog date, and the third took its good old time and appeared on July 4th. So I thought as an anniversary nod to these strange but fun pieces (one audience member after a concert of mine opined that the composer "must have been drunk when he wrote them!") I'd post the set for your listening edification. (By the way, I remember sight reading another piece in college and discovering at the end that it was dated a hundred years ago that very day! What a curious sensation that caused! I've forgotten know what piece is was. I think it was Russian.)

They are called Embryons Desseches, or "Dried Embryos" which is possibly Satie's way of poking fun at the question of compositional technique in music (it's a long story, but it usually has to do with his friend Debussy). The poetry which precedes each movement is also a bit absurd; each movement is titled after a different Crustacean (you read me right; this might be the only set of piano pieces in existence who movements are titled after Crustaceans.)

I have had some fun in the past asking people to draw pictures of said Crustaceans based on the way the music inspires them (without looking at the animals). Here is one my wife drew many years ago:

It is certainly more fun than the drawings I just saw on Wikipedia. There is an entire article there if you'd like more information on these pieces, though it is short on whimsy.

Satie certainly wasn't. Here is his poetry and the music that is attached to it:

Satie: Dried Embryos

I. The Holothurian
Ignorant people call it "sea cucumber."
The Holothurian usually climbs up rocks or blocks of stone.
Like the cat, this sea animal purrs; moreover, it spins dripping threads of silk.
The action of light seems to disturb it.
I observed a Holothurian in the Gulf of Saint-Malo.

II. The Edriopthalma
Shellfish with sessile eyes.
Very sad by nature, these sea-creatures live,
withdrawn from the world,
in holes drilled through cliffs.

III. The Podopthalma
Crustaceans with eyes placed on moveable stalks.
They are skillful and tireless hunters
They are found in all the oceans
The flesh of the Podopthalma is tasty food.

Happy listening. And happy birthday, you silly old pieces!