Born in New Orleans May 8, 1829, to an affluent New Orleans family, Gottschalk was the son of a British Jew and a Creole mother. Gottschalk showed signs of musical precocity as early as age 4. After teaching himself to play melodies and left-hand harmonies on the piano, his parents sought the instruction of François Letellier, a New Orleans organist and choirmaster, to guide their son’s talent. Quickly learning all he could in New Orleans, at thirteen he was sent to Paris to pursue his piano studies. Shut out of the Paris Conservatoire for being American - "America is only a country of steam engines." - he took private lessons with Charles Hallé and Camille Stamaty, studying alongside the seven year old Saint-Saëns. When Stamaty retired from teaching, the 16 year old Gottschalk felt no need to find another piano teacher, but did continue his composition studies.
He soon became known not only as a good pianist but a celebrated one, the first internationally famous American pianist. His status was on a par with many rock stars of today. Young women would flock to his concerts and turn faint at his appearance. His exotic sounding compositions became the rage of Europe and were played by many concert pianists.
Gottschalk began to compose in the late 1840s. Inspired by the inclusion of nationalist themes in Chopin’s music, he drew upon his own background and included the plantation melodies that he grew up with and the Cuban and Caribbean rhythms he heard in New Orleans. Gottschalk was one of the first American composers to be inspired by the folk music of his native country. His ‘cakewalk’ music, in turn, was a precursor of ragtime. After spending time in the West Indies (particularly Havana) and South America, different influences came to bear on his music. Gottschalk also emulated the sophisticated playing of Chopin and Liszt and added his own preference for the upper two octaves of the piano. Described as "style pianola" because it resembled the sound of a player piano, this high register produced cascades of silvery sound. From his early period of composition in Paris came La Savane (based on Negro folk songs and rhythms)and La Bananier. This piece was encored five times in Geneva: the sixth time Gottschalk exited the stage door and "left the lunatics to yell to the desert."
Gottschalk returned to the United States in 1853 making his American debut in New York City. He had a busy life composing large quantities of music, traveling and playing concerts and getting mixed up in love affairs. In his diary Gottschalk speaks of his touring schedule, reviewing some of the rigors of the concert circuit: "I have given 85 concerts in four months and a half," he wrote. "I have traveled 15,000 miles on the railroad. At St. Louis, I have seven concerts in six days; at Chicago, five in four days." When touring Europe, North and South America, Gottschalk traditionally left a pair of white gloves on the piano after the concert; his adoring fans would scramble to retrieve them as souvenirs. (Overwork drove Gottschalk to the nervous habit of biting his nails and he actually wore gloves even when sleeping to prevent this)
Before and during the American Civil War he played concerts in the eastern and central states, always traveling with supporting musicians; (There were no solo recitals in those days.) In 1856 he got into trouble after playing in San Francisco. Although Gottschalk denied the activity, the local citizens got riled up at reports of his alleged indiscretions with a respectable young lady of the city. Rather than face a hostile mob Gottschalk escaped by boat to South America where he crossed the continent, eventually ending up in Rio de Janeiro where he arranged his "monster concert" of 650 performers. For this he hand copied all the music, and led rehearsals.
In December 1869, at age 40, Gottschalk collapsed at the piano while playing his Morte (Death) in Rio de Janeiro. Shortly afterwards he died, some say of yellow fever or being poisoned by a vengeful husband. In all likelihood the cause was peritonitis.
For his entire professional career Gottschalk was donating his services for the help of those more needy than himself. In 1851 he gave a benefit concert for Parisian workers unemployed on account of their factory being burned. During his tour of Spain he gave at least one concert in each city solely for charity. Also in Spain he befriended a young street urchin, an orphan whom he later adopted and took care of his education and welfare until adulthood. Gottschalk continued his arduous concert tours so that he could support his entire family after his father died of yellow fever. At his 1865 concerts in California the gold miners in the audience showed their appreciation by throwing gold and silver coins on stage as well as applauding - a custom Gottschalk found distasteful. True to his humanitarian nature, he publicized that any money thrown on stage would be given to charities.
As is the cycle of human taste, Gottschalk’s immensely popular music was soon scorned after his death and fell into obscurity. His music is just as fresh and energetic as any today, and his rhythmic flair does not sound dated. One wonders if he had not died so young what his mature music could have developed into, as hinted at in his A Night in the Tropics.
Gottschalk’s music has also been used for Balanchine’s Tarantella (1964) and Ruthanna Boris’ Cakewalk (1951). Both ballets have been presented by BalletMet.