Louis Moreau Gottschalk

Known mainly as a virtuoso pianist and composer of instrumental music, Gottschalk's music today is recognized as a direct precursor to ragtime. Gottschalk truly championed the "melting pot" principal of America in his music; though he spent much of his life in Europe and South America, he always identified himself as from New Orleans. Not only did he manage to incorporate several international styles into his compositions--from European harmonic traditions to New Orleans "creole" music to native South American dances--but he also began to blur the line between popular and "classical" music through his innovative performances.

Photo: Louis Moreau Gottschalk, taken sometime between 1855 and 1865, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

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Born in New Orleans, Gottschalk was the son of immigrants. His father was a German-Jew, born in London, and his mother’s father, a Catholic baker of French descent, had left Haiti after the slave’s rebellion in the 1790s. Gottschalk showed musical inclinations very early in life, and, by 1836, he was substituting for his organ teacher during Mass. In 1841, Gottschalk was sent by his father to Paris to study music.

Gottschalk’s studies in Paris were fruitful, though he was initially denied entrance to the Conservatory on grounds of his nationality. Immediately preceding his 16th birthday, Gottschalk made his critically-acclaimed debut as a pianist at the Salle Pleyel and was labeled a herald of music from the New World. This performance was the true beginning of his international career. His piano music, which became popular in Europe in the late 1840s, made use of West Indian songs as well as other native music from the Americas, especially syncopated rhythms. His “Creole” compositions for both piano and other instrumental ensembles (especially string quartet) became the vogue in Paris.

Following his “formal” debut at the Salle Pleyel in 1849, Gottschalk spent the next few years touring Europe: first Switzerland, and then Spain, spending 18 months in the later and composing music that incorporated Spanish rhythms and harmonies.

After returning to America in 1853, Gottschalk struggled to make a living. His father, who died the same year, left behind Gottschalk’s extravagant mother and siblings, who now lived in Paris. To make money, Gottschalk quickly assimilated the current trends of American music into his own, especially the melodies of Stephen Foster. His ballads “The Last Hope” (1854) and “The Dying Poet” (1863) remained popular even half a century after their publication. Even while incorporating American popular music, Gottschalked managed to maintain his original approach, incorporating quotations of unexpected songs as well as atypical harmonies.

Departing for South America in 1857 with his friend Adelina Patti and her husband, Gottschalk began another era of his musical life. He studied his musical roots, finally settling in Guadaloupe and studying native music, such as the contradanza. He had a break from performing, wrote several operas (which kept him in the American and French press), and even mounted a successful music festival in Cuba in 1860. However, when the Civil War broke out in America, the Unionist Gottschalk was in pro-Secessionist Cuba and ended up signing a contract to tour the United States, beginning in 1862.

Once arriving in the United States, Gottschalk traveled 15,000 miles and give 85 concerts in the first four and a half months of his tour. This pace was maintained until 1865, by which time it is estimated Gottschalk gave over 1,000 American recitals. Not only did Gottschalk promote the Unionist cause during his recitals, but he also sought to blur the line between “classical” and popular music, mixing pieces of both genres during a performance. He was immensely popular, and the tour ended only because he was accused of “compromising a student at the Oakland Female Seminary” and sent back to South America. He never returned to the United States.

During the last four years of Gottschalk’s life, he continued his busy schedule, organizing musical festivals, performing, composing, and speaking out about politlcs. The last year of his life, he caught malaria and died in December of 1869, probably from an overdose of quinine.

–Christie Finn Source: New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians

Related Information



A Gottschalk Festival

(Louis Moreau Gottschalk)


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