The Prodigy and the Musical Venues of New Orleans
Louis Moreau Gottschalk began playing the piano at around age 5, and by the time he was 7 he was one of those “child prodigies” of which every city could boast. However: Moreau (as he was called) lived in New Orleans, and for him, that made things different. It was no exaggeration when an article in the New Orleans Bee asserted – on November 18, 1837 – that:
“the little musical enthusiasm prevailing in the United States is nearly entirely concentrated in New Orleans.”
The young prodigy would grow up in a city whose population had available to them a variety of music unique in the United States at the time.
There were three essential public venues for music in Gottschalk’s New Orleans: theaters (meaning opera houses, concert halls, and standard theaters); ballrooms and dance halls; and the streets.
In the decades prior to the Civil War, New Orleans was the opera capital of North America. In the 1830s, New Orleans had two permanent opera houses before any other city in the United States had even one. In a single week in 1836 – the year the 7-year-old Moreau Gottschalk attended his first opera – the citizens of New Orleans could attend (again, in a single week) fourteen different performances of nine different operas performed by four different opera companies.
The St. Charles Theater, built in 1835 when Gottschalk was 6, was for many years the largest opera house in the United States. In its upper gallery, it even featured a large seating area for enslaved people.
You read that correctly.
It was remarkable. In pre-Civil War New Orleans, the line between whites, free people of color, and enslaved people was often shockingly insubstantial. Yes: seating in opera houses, concert halls, and attendance in ballrooms was segregated, but much more often than not, seating was available to anyone who had the price of admission. According to Henry Kmen, writing in his book Music in New Orleans (Louisiana State University Press, 1966), the public ballrooms of New Orleans – each of which had its own orchestra – were:
“open to absolutely anyone who could pay the price of admission.”
Among the most popular music played in New Orleans’ concert halls and ballrooms were orchestral arrangements of opera music. Given Moreau Gottschalk’s early exposure to opera and operatic arrangements, it should come as no surprise that he composed thirty-one fantasies for piano on themes from operas by – among others – Verdi, Rossini, Donizetti, Bellini, and Wagner.
But in fact, if you wanted to hear opera sung and instrumental arrangements of operas performed in New Orleans, you didn’t have to go to an opera theater, a concert hall, or a ballroom. Nope: you could hear all-of-the-above in New Orleans’ all-purpose, al fresco concert venue, meaning the streets, where – given the city’s semi-tropical climate – the concert season was 24/7, 365.…
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