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.

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