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Not your Average Concert tour 

The Intrepid Louis Moreau Gottschalk tours the United States during the Civil War...

A brief narrative, making use of several biographies and the subject's own "Notes of a pianist"...

In which he records the highly charged sentiments of the people...

With a lively account of the ignorance and apathy of his audience in some places, and their great approbation in others.

Being chiefly a record of his struggles for artistic survival in a country that was not accustomed to the art of the piano recital, or concert music in general, and his corporeal survival in the middle of a war which was daily claiming the lives of thousands of his countrymen, and which was often not far away....

Also a chronicle of his frustrations with stubborn amateurs, stupid people of all kinds, critics, and periods of forced idleness...

     Louis Moreau Gottschalk had guts. Let's get that out of the way at the beginning. Having returned from Europe where, as a teenager, he made a huge sensation as the composer of exotic sounding Creole-American piano works and a brilliant showman who could make the piano roar and purr with the best of them, he returned to the Americas ten years later, first spending a period in Cuba and South America where, among his specialties was the organization of what have become known as "monster concerts"--festival programs with hundreds, if not thousands of participants "bellowing and blowing to see who could scream the loudest....You can judge of the effect" wrote the honest maestro. Years later he recorded the grueling demands these shows made on him, saying that it was "equal to laying a plan for a [military] campaign....it is an immense effort, requiring a great deal of money, of time, of diplomacy, and muscles of steel in the service of an iron will." These concerts frequently took a toll on his health, which often led to long periods of inactivity, something which only seemed to bother him when he wasn't enjoying his surroundings; otherwise, he might overstay any visit for weeks or even months, arriving at his next destination long after he was expected. But at last his delightful indolence was at an end; he felt compelled to rejoin industrialized society, and besides, there was an offer to tour the United States. "I hesitated an instant," he writes, in the overwrought style of the times "[I] cast a last glance at the past, gave a sigh....The dream was finished--I was saved."

     What happened next was a real odyssey into the heart of frontier America, near battlefields, small prairie towns, and burgeoning cities across the eastern half of the continent. He mainly stayed north of the Mason-Dixon line, but even then the war sometimes got uncomfortably close.

      "A traveler whom we took up at the last station assures us that the Confederate army is not more than thirty miles from Harrisburg. Everybody is frightened. [my agent] begins to see his mistake....What shall we do? As for the concert, it is out of the question; but ourselves, our trunks--my pianos--what is to become of us in all this confusion?"

     Gottschalk's grave concern for his "giant mastodons," the two Chickering pianos with which he traveled, borders on high comedy at times, though the prospect of having them shot up by enemy soldiers would have put a serious dent in his itinerary.

     He was not averse to expressing the public fervor in music, however. His patriotic "Union" became a vehicle for what Richard Jackson called "a kind of high-class U. S. O. show," as he entertained the troops along the battlefields. In Baltimore, a day after a major riot, he debated the merits of prudence versus box office:

     "I very well understand how to fill the hall; but it is dangerous. It would be to announce that I would play my piece called 'L'Union,' and my variations on "Dixie's Land." In the first I intercalate 'Yankee Doodle' and 'Hail Columbia.' The second is a Southern negro air, of which the Confederates, since the commencement of the war, have made a national air. It is to the music of Dixie's Land that the troops of [general] Beauregard invariably charge the soldiers of the North. At the point at which men's minds are now--the hall would be filled with partisans of both sections, who would certainly come to blows. But I should make three or four thousand dollars. It is true that in the tumult I might be the first one choked."

     Wartime dangers notwithstanding, Gottschalk also had to deal with a sometimes fickle public, and the real threat of heavy financial losses from concerts poorly attended. Several of his funnier barbs are sent in search of the audience:

Toledo [Ohio], November 26, 1862

          Nothing interesting. Audience stupid. In the Artist's Room there was a bill attached to the wall: "If, before commencing the concert, the performers do not pay the rent of the hall, the porter has orders from the proprietors to turn off the gas." That does not give us a very high idea of the honesty of the artists who have performed before the Toledian public, or of the liberality of the amateurs of the town.

     Amateurs annoyed him, particularly ones who, he thought, were full of themselves. He recounts how, on one occasion, a bad pianist [amateurs never think they have to practice, he groaned] was to perform in a piece for 14 pianos! Only a few measures of the brief rehearsal convinced Gottschalk that a disaster was at hand. With glee he then tells how his piano tuner cleverly removed the insides of the upright piano, rendering it mute in time for the concert, a calamity that the frustrated amateur had no way to fix. Thus the audience was spared a musical travesty.

     Naturally, his opinions of the audience had to do greatly with its opinion of him. There were towns in which he was well received, sometimes having to encore the entire concert, the audience approving of what it was hearing so much that he obligingly repeated each piece in its turn. Sometimes this was not the case, as he once complained that his audience wouldn't even recognize Yankee Doodle as soon as he began to add the slightest pianistic embroidery. Of course, everybody was a critic. "At St. Louis, the wife of a judge said to me that I was deficient in charm; that my music was too learned....At Havana, Count O'Reilley discovered that I played too loud. At New York, H____ said that I played too soft." These remarks were caused, he opined, by an undeveloped musical taste. And besides, "Let us never listen to the public. We should hang ourselves in despair." Rather than despair, he simply gave as good as he got. If the audience wasn't interested in his wares, he closed up early and went home. One concert was over in less than half an hour. Of another audience, he admits he treated them badly, though "It must be said that they did not deserve better".

     Still, he needed his audience, and when the unpredictability of train travel and the inclement weather caused delays and fatigue, he worried that his audience would get cheated. At each stop, the pianist recalled his performance, sometimes recording that he "performed magnificently", but at others that he "played terribly". His recollections of the towns en route was just as varied. He loved the people of Baltimore, found Portsmouth, Maine "A charming little town", the same for Batavia, New York, reconciled himself to the 'ugliness' of St. Louis because it reminded him of his childhood New Orleans, found  Madison, Wisconsin "remarkable", hated the wintry weather in Cleveland. When combined with the forced idleness of the Sabbath, it was "enough to make one commit suicide".

     Inactivity was really the one thing he could not stand. Often his pages are filled with the cries of impatience over not being able to do something on the Sabbath, when most activities were simply illegal.

      When he arrived in New York, at the end of 1862, he had given 85 concerts in four months, and traveled some fifteen thousand miles by railroad. A few times he gave two or even three concerts in a day. Others he would spend on the train, sometimes with soldiers or prisoners as companions. By the tour's end he was exhausted, and heartily sick of the regimen he had adopted. But by as early as January, he had begun another round of concerts. The next entry in his "Notes of a Pianist" finds him inexplicably in Springfield, Illinois, pontificating about the land of Lincoln, ready for a new round of observations about daily life, politics, philosophy, and the war. Seldom has a pianist wandered into such untested and sometimes hostile terrain, or written nearly as much about the experience.


Gottschalk's "Notes of a Pianist", first published in 1881, then reprinted by Alfred A. Knopf in 1964 and again in 1979 by Da Capo Press, NY, is back in print!


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