Saturday, May 27, 2017

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

Partying actually has to adjust less than inflation over time...
I’m going 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, that’s a refreshing break from his frequent resort to fruit metaphors.)

America, at its best, celebrates actual freedom, especially the right to stand down from formality; Gottschalk’s notes on the “Puritans” gets at what I find worst and stifling in American culture. 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. Given his dabbling in subtly new musical forms and his, as I’ll detail later, bent toward sensuality, Gottschalk makes for something like the perfect ambassador to sell that 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.

In the last chapter, I wrote about the Old Germania Society’s arrival in the States and how they, along with French conductor, Louis Jullien, didn’t so much expand America’s musical repertoire (though they did), as they set a certain bar for technical expertise. When I typed that post, there was a quote I tried and failed to find in Richard Crawford’s America’s Musical Life: A History. The quote I had in mind popped up in his chapter about Gottschalk, as it happens, and it deals with another particular tension in American musical history.

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 less in composition, than 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.

Another American, a noted music critic from Boston named John Sullivan Dwight had a different take. Per Crawford:

“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, strike me as the difference between writing an essay and stenography. In case the choice of words doesn’t make it clear, yes, 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 (for whatever reason). Moreover, Gottschalk brought something to Europe – an original musical/entertainment form, like minstrelsy, only way less racist, but also grounded in something European culture immediately understood – e.g., classical music. In both cases, and in the case of pop culture today, 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 had not heard before (and with the “unwilling” taking almost a pretty shocking portion of the lead; true story). He had some serious champions too, musical legends among them (Frederic Chopin and Hector Berlioz, anyone? Chopin, in particular, blessed Gottschalk 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. To clarify, Gottschalk happened because New Orleans, a city that could have happened nowhere else on the planet, happened. Again, I fucking love this country…at least when it recognizes that which is best in itself.

Before turning to the music (to the best of my tin-eared abilities), 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. And, again, by all accounts, this is what burned him in the end: whilst in San Francisco, he kept someone – a school girl, as it happened – away from her chaperones too long for local tastes, and had to flee town and country before a vigilante force weighed justice upon his head. Not celebrating the specific act (because, 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), but 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 basically 19th-century-speak for, "Dude, we partied for, like, three weeks." OK, now, the music.

Because Gottschalk composed (apparently) 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 the songs to say what he did right or wrong in one song or another, I would argue that his music can grow on you with enough time and effort toward translation/grasping it.

Gottschalk original contribution to musical culture was his introduction of Creole music to his compositions. He produced his most famous works from within this profile during his earliest years – e.g. the time he spent in Paris, France (really? France?). 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. It’s here where I have to pause to admit that, honestly, I have no idea what “Creole influence” would sound like in Gottschalk’s time. 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; Wikipedia agrees, for what it’s worth (as much as the Encyclopedia Brittanica, as it happens, but, meh).

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,” a song 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 tymie 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, again, if you listen to it, you’ll hear a master transcend the root and…basically, go fucking nuts.

The innovation Gottschalk brought to classical piano – and what he would later give to ragtime (a still more African-American-inspired 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 at all, that sound recurs in a number of his compositions. Call it his gift to the Old World – one they received gladly, and in many cultures.

The other song I want to dig into is “The Last Hope,” a sappy, sentimental song with a great, if lost (at least for this post; going from memory) back-story. Gottschalk claimed that the memory of a wizened old woman from Cuba (or thereabouts) inspired the “The Last Hope.” The story was that Gottschalk grew close to the woman her in the final days and his playing soothed her before she had to make that final journey. When she finally passed, the song spilled forth as a tribute to her. It’s probably apocryphal – Gottschalk’s gifts included an endearing theatricality, reportedly - but it’s also a damned good story. And “The Last Hope” is 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.”

Gottschalk strikes me as one of the earlier examples of an American approaching the Old World without that nagging sense of inferiority that can sometimes afflict a country borne with a nouveau riche mind-set. In short, however, we are the people who bring the kegs and spirits; we are the people who created, and keep creating, ever-proliferating genres, most of them designed, at least in part, to play as music in the background when we go about being awesome. Yeah, I know, the Puritan thing still exists, but you’ll stay saner, longer once you realize that the Puritan thing co-exists with the people being awesome – i.e., the people kicking up their heels the highest.

Again, 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. If anything defines popular music, it’s the elevation of instinct, warmth and feeling over cold, dead technique; and, as it has evolved into the 21st century, 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.

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