Gottschalk played piano at 'speed of thought'
Bob Marcotte
April 21, 2008 01:05 AM

"We can only say that the superb playing of Gottschalk fills us with great wonder and admiration. He produces an effect upon the hearer that cannot be approached by any other pianist we ever heard. His compositions possess a fanciful character, wholly their own."

So wrote the Daily Democrat on Nov. 21, 1862, to describe a concert here by Louis Moreau Gottschalk, one of the most colorful - and controversial - U.S. musicians of his time. As noted previously in this column, he made at least four appearances in Rochester during the Civil War years and considered the city one of his favorite stops.

"Charming town; one of the neatest, most animated, and most civilized of the West. My concerts here are always profitable and my audiences always well disposed," he is quoted as saying by a former Democrat and Chronicle music editor.

'King of pianists' "He will be the king of pianists," Frederich Chopin predicted after hearing young Gottschalk perform in Paris during the 1840s. The verdict on the New Orleans-born Gottschalk has been sharply divided ever since. His best piano compositions, influenced by his extensive sojourns in the Caribbean and Central and South America, "boldly prophesy" the coming of ragtime and jazz with their syncopated rhythms and jagged melodic lines, according to Irving Lowens' profile in The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians.

Others of his pieces, however, were "blatant attempts to cater to the public taste and increase his income." For all that, a renewed interest in his career, beginning in the 1930s, led to a general consensus that he was one of the most significant American musicians of the 19th century.

An ambitious U.S. tour Most of his Rochester appearances occurred from 1862 to 1865, when financial necessity forced him to leave Cuba to embark on a brutal U.S. concert tour. The Southern-born Gottschalk took an oath of allegiance that allowed him to enter the Union states. By April 1865, he estimated he had given 1,100 American recitals and traveled 95,000 miles, often in the company of other singers and performers. But Gottschalk was always the main attraction.

At his February 1865 concert here, as Rochesterians began to glimpse an end to four years of bloody civil war, five pianos and four other pianists were brought on stage to perform Gottschalk's arrangements of marches from Faust and Tannhauser.

Gottschalk's "fingers move upon the keys with the speed of thought. The admiration that he commands from an audience is not because he is celebrated as a pianist," the Rochester Union and Advertiser noted, "but because he takes the listener captive at once and makes him realize that he is a genius."

Ever flamboyant, Gottschalk's fondness for flirting with young women finally caught up with him later that year. While in California, he and another man took two Oakland Female Seminary students for a carriage ride and didn't return them until 2:30 a.m. Gottschalk, it appears, was guilty of bad judgment and nothing more, but the incident was turned into a "scandal" by the local press. Gottschalk hastily left for South America. He continued to perform, giving several "monster" concerts involving as many as 650 performers in Rio de Janeiro. He fainted at the keyboard while performing in that city in 1869. Confined to his bed, he suffered in Rio de Janeiro's heat and was taken to higher environs, where he died that December.

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