Louis Moreau Gottschalk was born in New Orleans in 1829 to an English father and a French mother. He played the piano from an early age and was soon recognized as a prodigy. At the age of 13, he was sent to Paris to study and receive the classical training and the refined education required to fulfil his musical ambitions. The Conservatory rejected his application on the grounds of his nationality. He still took private lessons from Camille Stamaty and Pierre Maleden (who were also the teachers of Saint-Saëns) and it did not take long for his keyboard virtuosity to be noticed and appreciated. After he performed Chopin’s E-Minor Concerto with the composer in the audience, Chopin predicted the young Gottschalk that he would become the ‘King of Pianists’. He then gained entry into Parisian musical circles. He created a sensation with Le Bananier, Bamboula, La Savane, those « Créole » compositions of his own that were already the rage of the salons of Paris he frequented. He quickly became hugely acclaimed in the newspapers of the time and his scores were widely sought after.
He then gathered triumph after triumph during his concert tours in several French cities, Switzerland and Spain, impressing not only the public but also the leading artists and the crowned heads (Victor Hugo, Théophile Gautier, Hector Berlioz, the Empress of Spain, the Grand Duchess of Russia, etc.) Gottschalk became a close friend with many of them, including Hector Berlioz. That friendship continued even after Gottschalk departed Europe as the two wrote each other regularly for the rest of their lives. Compared to Liszt and Chopin, —Pleyel called him « the American Chopin » —, he was expecting to achieve the same level of success in his native country.
When he returned to the United States in 1853, his fame had not preceded him and his concerts did not allow him to make a living. The concert halls were empty and he was very unpopular in Boston where the critic John Sullivan Dwight accused him of always playing his own compositions and never the « great masters ». In addition, his father died the same year. With his passing, Gottschalk took upon himself the responsibility of supporting his mother and four sisters. He quickly put this catastrophic period behind him by heading to Cuba, where he spent a more glorious year and a half. He came back to the United States in 1855 and soon gained big success in New York, thanks to the strong support from the Chickering Piano Company. He shared the stage several times with Thalberg with whom he had a friendly rivalry.
Coming back to his West Indies roots, he went in 1857 to the Caribbean and lived in Martinique, Guadeloupe, Cuba, Puerto Rico… where he immersed himself even more in local rhythms and melodies. He gave monster concerts in Cuba, with hundreds of musicians, dozens of pianists and the whole island behind him. His most famous composition, the symphony A Night in the Tropics, was part of the repertoire and was performed by 650 musicians.
He returned to the United States in 1861, when the Civil War broke out. Although a Southerner, he swore allegiance to the Union and composed many patriotic pieces. The best known The Union would be utilized in The Star-Spangled Banner. He performed the piece constantly in recital, including once for President Lincoln himself. After a brief trip to Canada, he went to California. As he had travelled thousands of miles on the railway and given plenty of concerts, his status as a matinee idol eventually led to the demise of his career in the United States. He was forced to flee the country in 1865 because of a scandalous affair with a young female.
He travelled through Mexico to South America and logged another thousands of miles (Argentina, Peru, Paraguay …), ignoring the danger of traveling to countries embroiled in civil war. He witnessed and recorded in his journal the horrors perpetrated by the dictatorships of these countries. In 1869, he arrived to Brazil where he continued to organize music festivals. With his unique entertainment style, he planned in 1869 a concert in Rio de Janeiro including 800 performers and 5,000 spectators. However, probably exhausted by a life full of touring and concerts, he died in December of the same year at 40 years old, probably from tropical fever and/or appendicitis during a concert near Rio while playing a piece called ‘Morte!’, (« Death! »). Although he composed more than 300 works, many of his unpublished scores got lost then. His scores sold well for some time but he nonetheless gradually sank into oblivion. Only his composition ‘The Last Hope’ enjoyed success after his death until his music fell out of favor and was totally neglected by the beginning of the twentieth century.