Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Music History Monday: We All Make Mistakes

Louis Moreau Gottschalk

Gottschalk photographed by Matthew Brady sometime between 1860 and 1865.

Today we celebrate the 188th birthday of Louis Moreau Gottschalk. During his all-too-brief, 40-year lifetime, 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 patriotic compositions and arrangements and giving away much of his earnings to veterans’ organizations.

He was born in 1829 in what was then the most cultured and diverse city in the United States: New Orleans. Gottschalk’s heritage was diverse as well. His father was a Jewish businessman from London and his mother was Creole: a Louisiana native of French decent. He was a musical prodigy whose early 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 Euro-tradition.

Gottschalk composed “Ragtime” fifty years before the term was invented. In some of his pieces he used the piano like a ginormous drum set seventy years before composers like Béla Bartók and Sergei Prokofiev created sensations by doing the same. Trained at the Paris Conservatory, 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 and made him a legend in his time.

Yet for all of Gottschalk’s fame as a pianist, composer, Union patriot and philanthropist, it was a mistake he made in Oakland, California for which he is – unfortunately – best remembered today.

Background. Gottschalk’s American fame reached its apogee in the months following the end of the Civil War: during the late spring and summer of 1865. On April 27, 1865 – 18 days after Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox – Gottschalk arrived in San Francisco for what was to be a five-month California tour.

Within days, the pre-eminent San Francisco paper of the day – the Daily Alta California (which included among its writers the thirty year-old Samuel Clemens/ Mark Twain) – declared Gottschalk to be “the world’s best pianist and composer.” Gottschalk was inundated with invitations to perform, including one from the “Oakland Seminary for Young Ladies” across the Bay in Oakland. The “Seminary” was an ultra-strict theological college that banned dancing and parties and forbade the young ladies from leaving the school unless a parent or guardian accompanied them.

Gottschalk performed at the seminary on May 18, 1865 and gave the place not another thought. Ah, but the young ladies at the Seminary thought a lot about Louis Moreau Gottschalk. He was an international celebrity and a great showman. He was also cute, and at 36 he wasn’t too-too old. The “young ladies” didn’t get to see his like very often there in Oaktown.

The “event” that was to rock Gottschalk’s world began on September 14, four months after the concert at the Oakland Seminary.

Here’s what happened:

Gottschalk had a friend in San Francisco, a dude named Charles LeGay (no sophomoric comments, please). This Charles LeGay had been receiving anonymous love-letters from someone “claiming” to be a 20 year-old woman. On September 14, LeGay received a letter from this “young lady” inviting him for a rendezvous in Oakland and suggested that he bring his friend Gottschalk along with him.

“Cool!” thought Gottschalk and LeGay, who ferried across San Francisco Bay and then took a carriage to the appointed place. Eventually, two young women did indeed show up. They got into the carriage with the men and that’s the last we know until girls were dropped early the next morning at 528 11th Street, between Washington & Clay (about 4 miles from where I am writing this), in what today is downtown Oakland.

Yes indeed: that was the address of the “Oakland Seminary for Young Ladies”, where both girls were students.

It took less than a day for the merde to hit the fan. The Sacramento Daily Bee reported “a bit of scandalous behavior on the part of Gottschalk” and claimed that the girls did not return to school until after daybreak, at which time they were both summarily expelled. The San Francisco Examiner then swung into action:

“We spare our readers a detailed account of the infamous affair. It is sufficient to say that two young and blooming girls have been forever ruined by two heartless libertines, and that one of the girls has been sent off to a convent. The simple-minded girls were dazzled by a flashing exterior and a celebrated manner, and fell victim to the hellish lust of the seducers.”

The San Francisco Morning Call picked things up from there:

“It’s the same old story: a strolling adventurer captivates the fancy of thoughtless young [girls] who, closing their eyes to the terrible future into which they – by their one criminal act – plunge themselves, give themselves to the embraces of the seducer.”

The Daily Dramatic Chronicle began its coverage with the headline: “L. M. Gottschalk: Tar And Feather.”

L. M. Gottschalk didn’t have to read much more than that. In the space of just three days, he’d gone from being the toast of San Francisco to being just toast. On September 18, wearing a disguise and identifying himself as “Mr. John Smith”, he slipped aboard the Panama-bound steamship Colorado just minutes before its 2 PM departure. Gottschalk learned it the hard way: what you do in Oakland does not necessarily stay in Oakland.

A living, breathing Louis Moreau Gottschalk never set foot in the United States again. He died in Rio de Janeiro four years after his “escape” from San Francisco. It was only then that he was “allowed” to return to the U.S., where he was buried (and rests today) in the Green-wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, N.Y.