Saturday, May 27, 2017

Pop Backstory, Chapter 6 - Louis Moreau Gottschalk: Loiusianan, American

Partying actually has to adjust less than inflation over time...
To start this post with what might feel like a random confession: I fucking love America.

I understand that there are a couple different “Americas,” even and especially within the United States of America, and I love one of them very much. Louis Moreau Gottschalk, the subject of this post and the first born-and-bred American composer of real consequence to bring our culture’s best, particular quirks to the Old World, draws the divide vividly with this:

“’Music,’ Gottschalk remarks in his journal, ‘is a thing eminently sensuous. Certain combinations move us, not because they are ingenious, but because they move our nervous systems in a certain way. I have a horror of musical Puritans. They are arid natures, deprived of sensibility, generally hypocrites, incapable of understanding two phrases in music.’"
Amen, brother. (Also, a refreshing break from Gottschalk's frequent resort to fruit metaphors.)

America, at its best, celebrates actual freedom. That's what I love about the quote above: Americans are at their best when they stick closer to the “freedom” vein, not least because dogma, reverence of tradition, and even nostalgia, are the enemies of innovation. Gottschalk's bent toward sensuality, as I’ll detail later, already made him something like the perfect ambassador to sell a specific variety of Americanism back to the Old Country. Or Old Countries because, as noted in this delightfully long and occasionally salacious website, the man got all the way around.

According to, now, two sources, Gottschalk womanized on a Wilt Chamberlain-esque level – a hunger that eventually proved to be his downfall – but he chased the same emotional/spiritual release in both composition and performance. To pull a favorite quote, something I posted on twitter, Gottschalk once wrote: “Color and sound are born in us…[they are] the outward expressions of our sensibility and of our souls.” In Gottschalk’s view, anyone performing music should search the notes and symbols on the song sheet before her for meaning, draw the feelings and sensations lingering in them and pour them on the listener.

That take separated him from Another American, a noted Boston-based music critic named John Sullivan Dwight. In Crawford's words:
“Dwight once advised performers to play with ‘no show or effect’ so that ‘the composition is before you, pure and clear…as a musician hears in his mind in reading it from the notes.’ In other words, music is a composer’s art; it should not be judged by the way it sounds but by the way the composer conceived it on paper.”
The two positions, between Gottschalk and Sullivan, hold in them the tension between writing an essay and stenography. In case the choice of words doesn’t make it clear, yes, I'm solidly Team Gottschalk. Call it the difference between technique and ecstasy in music, even if it’s not that simple. Here's where this gets good…

I stumbled across this good-sized biography of Gottschalk online and it suggests that he conquered Europe in a way that Crawford opted to downplay a bit (he had his thesis to support). Moreover, Gottschalk brought something to Europe – an original musical form, the popular stuff played under minstrel shows (e.g., just the music, not the racism) - and translated it in something European culture immediately understood – e.g., classical music. The uniqueness of the American cultural/societal experiment – e.g., tons of immigrants, willing and unwilling – synthesized to make a sound that the rest of the world hadn't heard before (and with the “unwilling” taking almost a pretty shocking portion of the lead; true story). And Europe responded. Gottschalk had some serious champions too, musical legends among them (Frederic Chopin and Hector Berlioz, anyone? Chopin reportedly blessed Gottschalk when he studied in Europe as a very, very young man.)

As every source I’ve come across notes, Gottschalk grew up in New Orleans, Louisiana, one of America’s most teeming melting pots. The Wikipedia page points to one specific place – Congo Square – as shaping Gottschalk’s musical and emotional development. Again, Gottschalk happened because New Orleans, a city that could have happened nowhere else on the planet, happened. This is the country I love - and only when it recognizes that which is best in itself.

Before turning to the music, I want to close out Gottschalks’ personal life. Like Louis Jullien, he operated in the rock-star/heroic-artist vein. According to that one website, and hints littered all over Crawford’s chapter on Gottschalk, he mingled with Europe’s elite and finest, seducing some crowned heads along the way. He did the same when he returned to the States after time in France, um…plowing society’s field as he performed and toured across the country. By all accounts, he carried on like that until, this one time, in San Francisco, he kept someone away from her chaperones too long for local tastes – a school girl, as it happened – and had to skip town before a vigilante force...hoisted his head to justice. Not celebrating the specific act (old dudes and young girls…just no), just acknowledging the man’s consistency. After his escape, Gottschalk effectively chose exile in South America and died young (age 40). He got in a lot of life prior.

There’s just one more passage from what I’ve been lazily calling “that website” that I want to highlight, and mostly because it taps into a certain hedonistic streak that thrives in the subject of this three-headed (soon to be four-headed) series on music. This came out of Gottschalk’s two-year “hiatus” (aka, bender) in the Caribbean:
“I again began to live according to the customs of those primitive countries, which, if they are not strictly virtuous, are nonetheless terribly attractive. I saw again those beautiful triguenas, with red lips and brown bosoms, ignorant of evil, sinning with frankness, without fearing the bitterness of remorse…The moralists, I well know, condemn all this, and they are right. But poetry is often in antagonism with virtue…”
That's 19th-century-speak for, "Dude, we partied for, like, three weeks straight." OK, now, the music.

Because Gottschalk composed next-level compositions (to paraphrase Crawford, hard on the player, easy on the listener), and mostly for piano, I am, bluntly, in way over my head when it comes to artistic merit. Still, I’ve listened to a crap-load of Gottschalk this past week and, while I can’t deconstruct any of his songs, I would argue that his music can grow on you with enough time and effort toward grasping it. Speaking of, I'll be leaning very heavily into Crawford's notes down below, credit where it's due.

Gottschalk brought Creole music to his compositions; that's his claim to fame, so far as he has one. He produced his most famous works from within this profile during his earliest years – e.g. his time Paris. The songs singled out in the material I’ve read included Bamboula, La Bananier, La Mancenillier, and more and more others that I’m finding as I read up on Gottschalk. Honestly, I have no idea what “Creole influence” would sound like in Gottschalk’s time (and won't ever get to it). All I have is the name of a square in New Orleans (e.g. Congo) and everyone I’ve read so far telling me, yes, Gottschalk drew deeply from Creole sounds; and Wikipedia seconds it, for what that’s worth.

I flagged a couple songs above – and, here, I’ll flag a couple more, including Pasquinade, The Dying Poet, and Manchega, all songs I’ve heard multiple times this week – but I’m going to focus on two Gottschalk songs. The first is “The Banjo,”which I’ve been trying to wrap my head around for almost as long as I’ve sat on this getting this project rolling. As noted earlier (minstrelsy chapter, I’m pretty sure), the banjo translated from traditional African instruments, and what Gottschalk tried to do when he composed “The Banjo” was to recreate the banjo’s rhythmic qualities (you can even hear it on an olde tyme banjo). If you listen to it, you should recognize the tune: it took a couple hooks from Stephen Foster’s “The Camptown Ladies” (as with the Germania Musical Society, Gottschalk was neither above nor below borrowing popular parlor songs), but, if you listen to it, you’ll hear a master guide the original to wider, brighter pastures.

The innovation Gottschalk brought to classical piano – and what he would later give to ragtime (yes, another African-American genre) – came with his use of syncopation, played with the left hand, "to establish a clear and pronounced rhythmic foundation." If you tour Gottschalk’s oeuvre, you'll hear an echo of that in his compositions, not matter how crappy your ear. Call it his gift to the Old World.

I want to close with The Last Hope,” because it features a metric ton of popular impulses that still hold today. It starts with the sweet, sappy inspiration: Gottschalk claimed he wrote it in tribute to an old woman from Cuba (or thereabouts) who he wound up comforting in her final days almost by chance. The song spilled out of him when word of her passing touched his ear (the same second, I'd like to believe). It’s probably apocryphal – Gottschalk’s gifts apparently included an endearing theatricality - but, it's also  a good story. It plays over a lovely, lilting tune, one that, per the webpage I keep referencing, “…is certainly the only instrumental piece that systematically, in the North and South alike, assembled the female half of the nation around the parlor piano for a good cry.”

For what it's worth, Gottschalk comes off as a pioneer when it comes to American approaching the Old World without that nagging sense of inferiority (have we ever out-grown that nouveau riche mind-set?). At the same time, screw it! What's so bad about being the world's wild, yet-productive cousin, the nation that decides it just wants to have fun and stops thinking after that. Moreover, we are the culture that created, and keep creating, ever-proliferating popular genres, the music we play as our daily soundtrack we pay during those contests over who can kick their heels the highest. Europe has class and a collection of mono-cultures, and that's fine, I just wouldn't trade it for what we've got.

Gottschalk made a great ambassador to the world at large, and mostly because he celebrated the kind of freedom of expression that really does make America Great. No small part of popular culture pushes people to set free their animal instincts. And Gottschalk did that in life, and he did it in composition.

1 comment:

  1. This last paragraph thing is killing me. So much html to sort...