Tamás Ittzés:
Franz Liszt's Influence
On The Ragtime And Swing Era
- historical and musical parallelisms -

The American Liszt: Louis Moreau Gottschalk

Nowadays many say that that the very first American ragtime composer was Louis Moreau Gottschalk.(17) Even though he preceded ragtime with about 50 years, his compositions were direct forerunners of the genre. Gottschalk was born in 1829 in New Orleans into a multi-ethnic family. He grew up in the French Quarter(18) and enthusiastically watched black slaves dance on Sundays in Congo Square (then Place Congo). The music was within hearing distance from the balcony of the Gottschalk house in Rampart Street (then rue des Remparts). These early memories of slave dance, the so-called ‘bamboula’ can be traced in Gottschalk's career. Most of his pieces are adaptations of this style and the styles he got acquainted with during his trips to Latin America. (See his work Bamboula - Danse des Négres, Op. 2. of 1845 in which he uses cakewalk rhythms.) Gottschalk was one of the most admired pianists after Liszt and their pianistic careers show many similarities. Gottschalk, like Liszt, was a child prodigy, playing the organ in a church at the age of seven. He was 12 when, following his teacher's advice, his father took him to Paris. The appearance of the young Gottschalk, just like that of Liszt, was sensational in Paris, because of his technical and improvisational skills. He studied in the class of Charles Stamaty, together with Saint-Saëns, among others. Fryderyk Chopin (1810-1849) predicted he would become the ‘king of pianists’, Camille Pleyel (1788-1855) mentioned him as the ‘successor to Chopin’ and his friend, Hector Berlioz (1803-1869) wrote: ‘Gottschalk is one of the few who are in possession of the indispensable elements of the versatile pianist.’ It is hard to imagine that Liszt, who was seldom in Paris those days, would not have heard of Gottschalk through letters or other channels as they had many common friends and acquaintances. Gottschalk heard Liszt play in Paris in the spring of 1844. Liszt so deeply influenced Europe and mainly Paris that Gottschalk must have been influenced by him, too. The new piano technique ‘created’ by Liszt, that resulted in changes mostly in fingering and position, is clearly present in Gottschalk's compositions as well as those runs, which became characteristic of romantic music since Chopin and Liszt. It is interesting that Gottschalk imitates the banjo's virtuoso pluckings with fast repetition in his already-mentioned salon-piece Le Banjo (Grotesque fantasie, American sketch) of 1854. This technique was possible due to the new mechanics of the Erard-pianos(19) of thirty years before. Liszt was an enthusiastic adherent and propagator of the Erard-pianos.(20) By the time of Gottschalk, these mechanical novelties were surely used by others as well. There are no data about Gottschalk's devotion to any certain brand but fast repetition was probably possible on all pianos by then.(21) Liszt, however, actively contributed to this and similar technical improvements, such as the strengthening of the wooden ‘sound-box’ of the piano to achieve greater dynamics.

Gottschalk toured Europe in 1851 and was especially successful in Spain where he received an Isabelle Cross from Queen Isabelle II that he always wore at his concerts until his death. (Just like Liszt who, in his virtuoso years, wore lots of his medals and decorations.) The visual and psychological effects of Gottschalk’s concerts were similar to the ones by Liszt. He made a hysterical impact on his audience consisting mostly of women. The enthusiasm was addressed not only to the piano virtuoso with incredible technique and to his exotic music but also to the handsome ‘Casanova’.(22)

Gottschalk returned to the United States and as the first American who was acknowledged in Europe, too, had great success. He used American and Carribean melodies in his compositions, almost exclusively, mostly of folk (black) origin. He wandered in the Carribean Isles from 1857, giving occasional concerts. Then he returned to the United States in 1862 where as an opponent of slavery, he backed the Northerners and played his black-style compositions at his concerts. He even set his three slaves free and the slaves of his family upon his father's death. This was similar to Liszt's espousal of the Hungarian cause, when he emphasized his Hungarianness not only in the West but also in the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy even before the compromise of 1867.

Gottschalk was successful in the United States not only financially but in high society as well. He played in the White House for President Lincoln in 1864. His programme included, among others, his paraphrase entitled Union(23) in which he used patriotic melodies. According to the San Francisco Daily Alta California, from 1865 within three-and-a-half years he travelled 95 000 miles (about 152 000 km) by train, and gave 1100 concerts. At the end of his concerts he regularly improvised on the melody of Yankee Doodle.

It must be mentioned that Gottschalk spoke very unfavourably of Liszt in most cases and criticized his works although he himself often played Liszt compositions especially his Lucia di Lammermoor Paraphrase. He thought rather poorly of Liszt, saying ‘he invented nothing’.(24) He found Liszt’s stage behaviour absolutely ridiculous and preferred Chopin’s introversion to Liszt’s ‘showmanship’.(25) At the same time, Gottschalk seemed to imitate and surpass Liszt in every aspect (i.e. number of concerts and decorations, making his love affairs public). Later he not only played Liszt works but composed and dedicated his Mazeppa(26) to Liszt.

He was the Franz Liszt of the Americans, the first classical musician who had pop-star-like success of today by having been educated in Europe and playing compositions from black sources. Gottschalk spent his last years in South America and died in Rio de Janeiro in May 1869 while he was playing his own composition entitled Morte (Death).

  • 17. According to several sources on his mother’s side, Gottschalk was a member of the French aristocracy, with some Creole blood. His great-grandfather arrived in the New World as a soldier of Louis XV of France and was Acting Governor of Santo Domingo for a while. Gottschalk’s father was a Spanish Jew but he was born in London and grew up in Germany. According to certain sources, his family moved to Germany from the Hungarian Kismarton (today Eisenstadt, Austria). (back to the main text)
  • 18. Downtown New Orleans (back to the main text)
  • 19. Sebastian (1752-1831) and then, following his death, his nephew Pierre Erard (1796-1855 but 1794-1865 in other sources) directed the Erard instrument-making company. They had revolutionary inventions in piano mechanism. (back to the main text)
  • 20. Liszt was the very first artist who ‘officially’ favoured and advertised one instrument brand. Whenever he could, he played on Erard pianos thus helping to increase their sales. The Erards transported a piano on a few tours of Liszt to England and Turkey. (back to the main text)
  • 21. It is sure that Gottschalk played on the pianos of his friend, Camille Pleyel. Camille inherited the piano making company of his father, composer Ignaz Pleyel (1757-1831). The Pleyels were the greatest competitors of the Erards in Paris. (back to the main text)
  • 22. Gottschalk had problems during his later American tours because of brief relationships with some of his young admirers. Once he had to quit his Californian tour due to such an incident. (back to the main text)
  • 23. Union Paraphrase de concert on national airs, op. 48. The piece was dedicated to General George McClellan and was first performed in 1862 in New York, on George Washington’s birthday. It includes the melody of Yankee Doodle, The Star-Spangled Banner and Hail Columbia. (back to the main text)
  • 24. Starr, Frederick S.: Louis Moreau Gottschalk, University of Illinois Press, Urbana and Chicago, IL, USA, 1995, p. 53. (back to the main text)
  • 25. Gottschalk’s opposition to Liszt could come from the fact that he was tutored by Thalberg, Liszt’s greatest rival in Paris and he thought highly of Thalberg later, too. (back to the main text)
  • 26. The work has been lost. (back to the main text)

    I: What Is Ragtime?
    II: Ragtime in Liszt's Age
    III: Music of the 19th Century In America
    IV: Liszt: The Virtuoso Musician of the Salons
    V: The American Liszt: Louis Moreau Gottschalk
    VI: Liszt's pupils and contemporaries in America
    VII: Liszt and European romanticism in American music education
    VIII: Liszt and ragtime regarding piano technique and harmonization
    IX: Popularity of Liszt's works in America - piano rolls
    What became a hit?

    X: European masters in ragtime and swing
    XI: The national character of Liszt’s music
    National music in America, exotic features in ragtime and jazz

    XII: Liszt and the opera - ragtime and jazz examples
    XIII: From ragtime to swing - progress in music and society
    XIV: Progressive features in Liszt’s late art
    XV: How Liszt, Chopin, Debussy and Ravel influenced swing
    XVI: Symphonic poems - Philosophy and religion expressed in music
    XVII: Liszt and Bartók
    XVIII: Liszt as a predecessor of modern jazz - building on fourths
    XIX: Did Liszt influence 20th century music through jazz?
    XX: Who if not Liszt?
    XXI: Epilogue

  • Copyright © 2003 Tamás Ittzés.
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