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the Gottschalk Prophecies

Louis Moreau Gottschalk (1829-1869) was the first American composer who used Latin rhythms in his works and prophesied jazz and ragtime, forty years before Scott Joplin. He was a piano virtuoso who never used written scores, but like a jazzman avant-la-lettre improvised his music.
Gottschalk as a child heard the brass bands in the streets of his native New Orleans, and attended operas at the numerous local theatres. His grandmother and his nanny, both Creoles, taught him Caribbean songs, and the family lived close to Congo Square, where as a child Moreau witnessed the tail end of the famous afternoon slave dances. That particular tradition died around 1835.
As a child prodigy of eleven he made his debut, and one year later he sailed to France, where he was not admitted to the Conservatoire de Paris, since he was born in an uncivilised country. Gottschalk studied with private tutors, and made friends with such composers as Frédéric Chopin and Camille Saint-Saëns. His 1848 debut at the Salle Pleyel proved a sensation and for the next five years the composer toured Europe, where his reception was comparable to the ones contemporary rock idols are used to.
In his early work, notably Bamboula, dating from 1848, he used black dances and songs he heard in his younger days. From 1854 on, he toured the Caribbean and South America extensively. Compositions containing habanera, bolero, and biguine rhythms date from this period. A work like Polka in B Flat (RO 273) seems to carry the seeds of ragtime. In later years Gottschalk implicitly distanced himself from his earlier work, and concentrated on composing operas in a more strict classical tradition.

Pianist Nanne van der Werff plays a number of original Gottschlk compositions and music journalist Eddy Determeyer paints a portrait of nineteenth century New Orleans and compares Gottschalks’s oeuvre with the earliest recorded American rags and dances from the Caribbean.


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