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Thursday, Aug. 13, 2009 12:59 am

A 19th century pop star finds Springfield bad news

Louis Moreau Gottschalk
It’s never easy being a star, but if you believe a superstar concert pianist from that time, it was especially difficult in Springfield in the 1860s.

The New Orleans-born Louis Moreau Gottschalk was a “hugely celebrated” concert pianist with a “tremendous following,” according to WUIS-FM music director and musician Karl Scroggin. “He was called ‘the American Chopin.’ Chopin even heard him play in Europe. Gottschalk traveled all over the world and was quite a womanizer.”

Scroggin says when Gottschalk performed here in 1863 and 1864, it must have been “the gala event of the season.”

Gottschalk performed practically everywhere. The man was like a gerbil on a wheel, constantly moving. He performed “more widely than any other artist or entertainer during the Civil War,” according to Louis Moreau Gottschalk by S. Frederick Starr (University of Illinois Press, 2000). The pianist chronicled his peripatetic travels through America’s “west” (now the Midwest), Canada, Cuba, Latin America and the American East Coast in a diary, which was published as a book, Notes of a Pianist (Alfred A. Knopf, 1964).

Travel conditions during his busiest years, from 1857 to 1869, would have tried Job’s patience. “Train schedules more rational on paper than in reality, hotels that imposed various forms of torture on their guests, abominable food, and auditoriums run by entrepreneurs whose avarice reflected their anxiety — these were the backstage realities of America’s emerging national market for culture,” writes Starr in his book.

Think of it as an 1800s pop star’s boot camp.

That boot camp proved especially uncomfortable in Springfield, where the rations were inedible and the barracks cramped. “St. Nicholas Hotel (!!!!) Each one of these exclamation points, if it could speak, would tell you a story of tribulations, of all kinds of mortifications that should render the St. Nicholas Hotel, Springfield, forever celebrated!” wrote Gottschalk in his diary. Because the legislature was in session, the overflowing hotel’s stressed cook served steaks and eggs that rivaled cowhide and the pianist had to sleep in a small room with five other men. The basin water was “black” and the owner surly. “O excellent Lincoln, Springfield has been your home, but that does not increase my admiration for its inhabitants!” he summarized.

Springfield saw Gottschalk differently, calling his concert “most brilliant,” according to the Jan. 9, 1863, Illinois State Journal. “So large and as appreciative an audience…was never before assembled on such an occasion in our city.” The Second Presbyterian Church, where he performed, was packed and “the encores were frequent.”

 Gottschalk gave Springfield another try the next winter. “This time the audience listens to us,” he wrote in his diary. The paper’s reviewer must have been at a different concert, because the Dec. 27, 1864 Journal said: “There should be a room set apart for ‘whisperers’ and ‘foot drummers,’ to which they may retire, that those who really love the beautiful and sweet passages in music may not be annoyed….”

The pianist brought along a violinist who played some proven crowd pleasers, including “Yankee Doodle.” But, Gottschalk added in his diary, these popular tunes always brought critical rebuke in the papers due to the reviewers’ cultural inadequacy. “They like this trivial music secretly, but, like all those who are conscious of their inferiority, they wish to conceal it…O hypocrisy and vanity!”

Sure enough, the day after his performance the Journal wrote: “We did not…admire the taste which prompted (the violinist) to answer an encore with the everlasting ‘Yankee Doodle’…We fail to see the propriety of introducing it in the Concert room, where better things are paid for and expected.”

Gottschalk was done with Springfield. After two visits, he found it “very disagreeable.” He also hated Peoria (“a very ugly place”), Cincinnati and Washington, D.C., where he wrote that he saw more “drunkards” than anywhere else.

Gottschalk admitted in his diary that his ambition to tour extensively required “an iron constitution and a flinty will to succeed at it.”

His travels ended in Brazil in December, 1869, where he died at the age of 40 after collapsing in the middle of a concert. The piece he had just finished was named “Morte,” the French word for a dead person.

Contact Tara McClellan McAndrew
at TMCand22@aol.com.


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