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Pianos and Pianists - Consultant Editor Ates Orga

The First American Pianist



Part 2


'… the quixotic tale of the triumphal march of the piano across North America …'
- Dieter Hildebrandt

'… such arrant schoolgirl trash as I thought never to have heard again
save in dreams of my sisters' infancy ...Gottschalk! - good gracious! …'
- George Bernard Shaw

'... [the] Elvis Presley of the Victorian era?'
- Richard Rosenberg




(pronounciation: 'close the lips, advance the tongue, appear a little like whistling, and you will have the key' - La France musicale)


Ates Orga


Mississippi New Town, 'The Paris of America'

Gottschalk - Moreau to his family, after his great-uncle, Count Moreau de l'Islet - was born in New Orleans, May 8th 1829, the eldest of seven children. His father, Edward, was a London-born, German-educated merchant of Sephardic origin, fluent in seven languages, a Doctor of Science from Cambridge, Massachusetts; his mother, Marie-Aimée de Bruslé, a Louisiana belle of French Creole descent, the daughter of a wealthy baker who'd fled Haiti via Jamaica during the tensions and slave rebellions of the 1790s (under Toussaint L'Ouverture the slaves had taken over the island in 1791). Showing a talent for music even before his fourth birthday, he took his first lessons from François Letellier, organist and choirmaster of the St Louis Cathedral in New Orleans, by the age of seven being competent enough to deputise. He also studied the violin with Felix Niolan, concert-master of the Opéra orchestra.

Living in a house on the fashionable Rue des Ramparts of the French Quarter, able from its balcony to 'view the swampy savanna with its growths of palmetto and moss-draped cypress trees stretching [northeast] toward Lake Pontchartrain' (Richard Jackson), the affluent Gottschalk family epitomised the quasi-feudal aristocratic colonial society of the 'Crescent City.' Moreau's maternal great-grandfather, Count Antoine de Bruslé, a former cavalry commander under Louis XV, had been a Governor of Santo Domingo. His French aunts, the Comtesse de Lagrange and Comtesse de Bourjally, brightened the best of Parisian salon life. Moreau's formative impressions, the pulsating life-blood of his future art, were to prove unforgettable. Acquired from the French by Thomas Jefferson in 1803 as part of the Louisiana Purchase deal, New Orleans was the exotic, cosmopolitan river port of the deep South. It had two opera houses generously patronised when New York had none. Both the Paris Opéra and Comédie Française visited regularly, bringing with them the latest operas, the classic plays. Then there was the local Afro-American population - their haunting versions of traditional Creole music, from nursery songs to dance rhythms, the 'booming' of drums, the 'blast' of wooden horns, the ring and clatter of triangles and rattles, the twang of banjos and Jew's harps, 'the slap of bare feet on earth', setting the colour and resonance of the place as much as the spoken patois of English, French and Spanish. (Reportedly, Moreau's own accent was more Franco-English than Confederate in dialect.)

'Sometimes in the evening he listened as the oldest slaves recounted mysterious legends, half narrative, half-song, from Africa by way of Haiti. And on Sunday afternoons, when the slaves were released from the quarters to assemble until twilight in the square called Place Congo [a couple of streets from home], Gottschalk stood with his father in the crowd of white spectators to watch the violent leaping dances [bamboula] the slaves performed to the relentless crescendo of their improvised drums'

Robert Offergeld, 'Gottschalk & Company, The Music of Democratic Sociability,'
The Wind Demon liner notes, New World Records 1976/95

Whether or not young Moreau ever went with Sally his slave-nurse (to whom he left a pension), whether or not she was ever one of the singing/dancing gatherings of her people, we cannot be sure. But that the images were life-defining is fact: within a decade they had become the raw soul of his first compositions.


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Copyright © 14 January 2000, Ates Orga, Suffolk, UK


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