In my latest class, we had a great time exploring the music of three 19th-century Americans: Stephen Foster, Louis Moreau Gottschalk and John Philip Sousa. All three were originals, creating a new kind of music that captured something uniquely American. All three became phenomenally successful. All three were entertainers who never claimed to be art composers. And all three helped commercialize music in new forms of popular art.
For all his success, Gottschalk is less known, today. He was born in New Orleans to an English businessman and a Creole mother, the first of eight children, and he showed early talent on the piano. At the age of 13, he sailed to Europe to receive “proper” classical training, but the Paris Conservatoire rejected him without even hearing him play, on the grounds of his nationality, saying, "America is a country of steam engines.” However, after Gottschalk gave a concert at the famous Paris concert hall, Salle Pleyel, Chopin remarked: "Give me your hand, my child; I predict that you will become the king of pianists." Franz Liszt also recognized Gottschalk's talent.
If you are new to Gottschalk's music, you'll enjoy some of these selections:
"La Bamboula": Written at 16, this New Orleans dance contains a cakewalk rhythm — an exaggerated style of dance based on aristocratic European styles — and glittering virtuosity. The name "Bamboula" refers to an African-Caribbean drum. The composition has a strongly rhythmic melody and unfolds in three sections (A-A-B). The introduction begins with notes like a drum beat.
"La Gallina": (“The Hen") In the middle of the 20th century, Eugene List, an American pianist, helped revive Gottschalk’s music with a series of recordings. This exuberant Cuban dance has fun with both the cakewalk and habañera rhythms, and mimics a hen's clucking. The late New York Times critic Harold Schonberg wrote that the effect is “highly Ivesian, even though Charles Ives had as yet not been born.”
"La Savane" ("The Savanna"): This is based on a slave song whose melody is similar to "Skip To My Lou”. A ballade, "La Savane" was supposedly inspired by the local story that the skeletons of runaway slaves that had perished in the swamps around the city of New Orleans had turned into oak trees. It's a set of gentle variations.
"The Banjo": Composed in 1853, this is one of Gottschalk's best-known works. His banjo imitations were so accurate, musicologists studied them to learn the sound of pre-Civil War African-American banjo playing. The melodies develop until the piece ends with a brilliant pair of variations, containing "Camptown Races." In this performance, the pianist inserts his own notes, at times.
Pianist Cypriern Katsaris, born in Marseilles, studied at the Paris Conservatoire, where, ironically, Gottschalk was not admitted because he was American. You will notice you are seeing a few examples of pianists attempting to put their own personality on this showy music.
"Souvenir de Porto (not Puerto) Rico": This is a processional piece that seems to arrive from a distance, reaches fortissimo and recedes into the distance. March rhythms mix with a habanera as it indulges in what Gottschalk says is “the full force of chromatic grapeshot and deadly octaves.” At the climax, as the procession envelopes us, listen to the rumba rhythm — 3 + 3 + 2 -- that suggests a forward lurch then a stutter. It’s sexy, fun and jazzy.
We're going deep in my next class, January 21. Originally, I wanted to give you a broad sample of American music, and we can still do that at a later date. But now, I want to explore the extraordinary work of just three 19th-century Americans who embody very different backgrounds, personalities and styles.
The music of Stephen Foster ("the father of American music") is simple, nostalgic and inward-turning, rooted in black America's sorrow and resilience. Louis Moreau Gottschalk was his opposite: a rock star of the stage and a phenomenally successful pianist who wrote swaggering, sexy music based on Creole and black music, not unlike George Gershwin. And John Philip Sousa was our March King, similar to Vienna's Waltz King, Johann Strauss. With their vigor and optimism, Sousa marches "should make a man with a wooden leg step out."
Despite their differences, all three Americans embody the spirit of their time in fascinating ways.
Join us at 4 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 21, Classic Pianos, 3003 SE Milwaukie Ave., Portland.
David Stabler is a pianist, writer, dad and cyclist. He's working on a novel based on his childhood years living in Africa and rode across America with his brother in 2017.