Monday, September 30, 2013

Mr. Gottschalk and I

This is the final installment of the Gottschalk series I wrote in June while preparing for a recital. The series was interrupted while I was on summer break.

Life moves pretty fast, says the prevailing wisdom. You say it. I say it.

Which moves faster, the change or the monotony?

For me last spring it was principally the rapid pace at which I had to adapt to new material. There was new music to learn and play every week. There were rehearsals, concerts, church services (four a weekend), weddings, gigs, people with various projects. There was email to keep up with, blogging and recording, composing, reading and learning, domestic chores---getting tired yet just reading about it?

And then, after a semester of all that, just when things were supposed to simmer down a little bit for the summer (but never did), I decided to throw in a piano recital for the heck of it.

Actually, there was a little more than devil-may-care involved. It had been on my so-called "bucket list" for several years,  and last summer seemed like time to do it. Mr. Gottschalk had nearly gotten himself involved in the Battle of Gettysburg, and that Battle was turning 150 on July 1st. So his music seemed to fit the occasion. And, while I wasn't under contract to anybody and could have pushed the recital back a month to give me time to practice, I really wanted to eventually have everything finished up so I could relax a bit before the fall semester started things up again (no such luck, as it turned out).

In a way, that gave me some insight into Mr. Gottschalk's world. He also had to turn it up a notch a lot of times when he was pretty worn out. In fact, the man gave at least one, if not two or three, concerts every day when he was touring, which was most of the time. During his stint in the United States between 1862 and 1865 he gave hundreds of concerts and traveled thousands of miles by train, often barely getting to the next town in time to start the next concert. Forget actually getting to practice.

But that's where our two worlds diverge. And frankly, I've taken the more obscure path, and it's made all the difference.

It can be stressful learning new music all the time, but routine may be the worse tyrant. And Gottschalk was nothing if not the machine on the road. Always playing the same pieces, night after night, able to predict, as he notes in his diary, at what time he would play The Banjo, when the audience would encore Aelian Murmers, when they would be charmed by Cradle Song, when he would receive thunderous applause for his Union, followed by a light supper (he often didn't get to eat until after the concert it seems!) and a few hours of sleep before that @#$% hotel gong would wake everybody up at 6 a.m. and it was time to catch a train to the next town.

Gottschalk could be fiercely proud of his torrential work schedule. He was once mortally insulted by someone who claimed he had traveled 80 miles by rail in the last year. It was 800! he says, indignantly. Any fool could have done 80. He was forever crabbing about the boredom of the road and of concert life. It sounds a bit like melodrama, perhaps: oh, woe is me, I'm a famous concert pianist whom everyone adores and look how hard it is to be this in demand; :sigh:--but I'll take him at least partially at face value. It wasn't as glamorous a life as it looked to outsiders. I've had enough experience with touring to know. By the third city you can't even remember which way to turn the key to get into your hotel room or how to get the water running because you keep having to learn different procedures for the most basic operations. And you never know about breakfast. Gottschalk complained about hotel food plenty as well.

The truth is, at some point we're all going to get pretty fed up with the life we've chosen and any glamour is going to wear thin at least some of the time. And you can pick your poison: I get more control, and more time to learn and grow, think and play, and do a variety of things, for which I pay by having to constantly juggle and balance, adapt and learn on the fly, and get paid less and acheive less notoriety. Gottschalk got to be famous, see the world, and make a niche in musical history, for which the price was boredom, fatigue, and probably wondering whether it was worth it. Then again, he might not have had such a choice. He had a large family to support, his father having died, and several siblings who depended on as big a paycheck as he could muster. This seemed to be the way to get it.

I've found Gottschalk a fascinating travelling companion this summer as I worked on the concert. His "Notes of a Pianist" is back in print and I highly recommend it. It is an interesting read. And his music, though not of the vintage of Chopin and Mozart is, as one writer put it, "frankly appealing." It is easy to get the ears around, and repetitive, but still has some very original things to say. You can hear some of that music here where it rests in the pianonoise archive. In the meantime, it is time to play "The Banjo!" and you can listen to it right here.

The Banjo by Louis Moreau Gottschalk.

I've outlived the man by over two years now. It must have been an exhausting life on the road. I've enjoyed journeying a little with him, but I don't mind that I am someone else. Maybe he wouldn't want my life either. You never know, though.

Friday, September 27, 2013


I'm not a big fan of a lot of our Sabbath rhetoric in the church. It isn't that we don't need a rest every seven days, it's mostly that we don't take one, and then we complain about it. In a culture as obsessed as we are with being on the go 24/7, we long for rest, pine for rest, yearn for rest, but don't actually do anything about it. Instead, we like to hear preachers and theologians tell us about the importance of slowing down and letting things be. Which ends up making peace and quiet the top story far too much of the time when there are a whole lot of other things that are more important, like the idea that maybe being part of the kingdom of God actually involves work on our part. Instead, we are so worn out from our day jobs that we collapse into the pew on Sunday for a moment of rest. Religion and rest, both items on the bottom of our lists, wind up in the "someday I'll get around to this category." But we don't, and Sabbath rest keeps on being big rhetoric. It's such a first-world problem, anyhow. If that's the biggest problem in your life, that you are stressed out and worn out, thank God right now you aren't starving or getting shot at. And then figure out how to carpool or tell your kid he can only be on 3 soccer teams this fall, not four. Do something about it.

All whining aside, rest is important. I've got more empathy for the worn out than I ever have had. Back in June, after weeks of wondering, as a first-year blogger, whether I ought to take a break this summer, or just cut back, or keep going, (would my readership suffer?) I decided I would take some time off, write a blog called "Sabbath" to explain my absence, and then knock off for a while. I had just made it through a grueling spring, full of new musical adventures and accomplishments, capped off by a piano concert I threw together in only a few weeks, and I needed to rest from something, particularly as the summer didn't promise the sort of rest it normally does. And then my computer had the equivalent of a massive stroke and died on the 4th of July, and by the time I got a new one we were off to Pittsburgh to attend a conference at a very pricey hotel where they charged extra for going online, so I was effectively blocked from the internet for a couple of weeks, which meant a forced vacation from blogging only days before I planned to take one anyway, and you know what? It was kind of nice not worrying about pumping out a blog three times a week and hoping I would have something useful to say and time to say it in. Suddenly, after publishing every Monday Wednesday and Friday without fail from January through June (even if some of the entries got published very late at night!) it all just....stopped.

And peace reigned. And maybe a few questions. Another dead blog? What happened? Has he given up blogging? Just on vacation. Hmmm.

Actually I imagined very few would notice. I also noted that the spambots stopped reading my blog. And that my blog traffic predictably took a big hit. But I am reasonably confident that the viewers I have left are actual humans (most of them) which is kind of nice. There aren't a lot of you, but it's nice to see you are reading. I hope it's worth your while. There are also just under 100 entries if you need something to do until Monday.

I'm ready to get back at it for another year. I've already begun a new season at my church, programming music new and old, sharing my investigations with my congregation, and hoping to be a resource to my local community and anybody who stumbles into my little corner of cyberspace.

I'm also ready to pick up where I left off. Monday's article will be the last in the series on my adventure with Mr. Gottschalk from June, and then it's back to another year of sharing music and listening tips on Monday, things from the teaching studio on Wednesday, and church music on Fridays. Onward...


Speaking of rhetoric....
At children's choir on Wednesday, while assigning each child a "fruit of the spirit" to sing each in turn:

Bridgette: I want to sing "self control"
Madeline: (her sister) but you don't have any self control.
Bridgette: That's why I want to sing it.

Me: [trying not to bust up, much as their mother did when I told her about it later!]