Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Music History Monday: Louis Moreau Gottschalk, or What Happens in Oakland Does Not Stay in Oakland

Louis Moreau Gottschalk (1829-1869) circa 1864
Louis Moreau Gottschalk (1829-1869) circa 1864

We mark the birth on May 8, 1829 – 194 years ago today – of the American composer and pianist Louis Moreau Gottschalk, in New Orleans. He died, all-too-young, on December 18, 1869 at the age of forty, in exile in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

Events that occurred in September of 1865 in San Francisco, California and across the San Francisco Bay in Oakland led directly to Gottschalk’s “exile” to South America. Those frankly tawdry events, most unfairly, have been recounted way too often and as a result, they have come to obscure Gottschalk’s memory as a composer, pianist, patriot, and philanthropist. That’s because people like me continue to write about them as if they, somehow, encapsulated the totality of who and what Louis Moreau Gottschalk was.

I hate myself for having participated in this unholy example of scandal mongering – I do – and I stand before you filled with shame and remorse.


Nevertheless, I fully intend to rehash these salacious events here and now with the understanding that following that rehash, we will spend the remainder of this post and all of tomorrow’s Dr. Bob Prescribes post doing penance, by providing a proper account of the cultural importance of Gottschalk’s hometown of New Orleans, as well as his life, times, and musical career.


Gottschalk circa 1850, at the time he was being called “Chopin’s Successor”
Gottschalk circa 1850, at the time he was being called “Chopin’s Successor”

During his lifetime, Louis Moreau Gottschalk was considered to be the greatest pianist and composer ever born in the Western hemisphere, the “Chopin of the New World.”  An American patriot, he foreswore his allegiance to his native South and embraced the Northern cause during the Civil War because of his unreserved hatred of slavery. During the Civil War he travelled and concertized tirelessly across the North and Midwest of the United States, inspiring his audiences with compositions and arrangements of patriotic melodies. He gave away much of his earnings to veterans’ organizations.

He was born in 1829 in what was then the most highly cultured and diverse city in the United States: New Orleans. Gottschalk’s personal heritage was diverse as well. His father was a Jewish businessman from London and his mother a Creole, that is, a Louisiana native of French descent. He was a musical prodigy whose compositions synthesized the incredibly different sorts of music he heard around him in New Orleans: African music, Caribbean music, Creole music, as well as the classics of the European concert tradition.

Trained at the Paris Conservatoire, the 20-year-old Gottschalk was called “Chopin’s Successor” when Chopin died in 1849. Subsequent concert tours took him across Europe, North America, Central America, and South America made him a legend in his time.…

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