Louis Moreau Gottschalk and thirteen and a half pianists

American pianist and composer Louis Moreau Gottschalk grew up in New Orleans and made such an excellent reputation there that he decided to try his hand at a European tour. There, he joined the traveling virtuoso circuit and conquered France, Switzerland and Spain. Critics compared him as a pianist to Chopin. His compositions more nearly resemble what I have described in earlier posts as “high-status popular music”—brilliant displays of bravura playing coupled with the novelty of his Creole background.

At the same time Gottschalk was in France, Pierre Musard and his various rivals put on “monster concerts,” which featured a gigantic orchestra. When Gottschalk decided to take his success back to the United States, he had acquired great familiarity with what dazzled European audiences.

By 1865 he had made an arrangement of the March from Wagner’s Tannhäusser for fourteen pianos and decided to try it out in San Francisco. Unfortunately, the day before the concert where the piece had been announced, one of the pianists became ill and had to drop out. He had few options. He was unwilling to postpone the concert, but playing it with only thirteen pianists seemed even more dangerous. The public, after all, could count and would immediately recognized that the concert didn’t live up to its billing.

Unfortunately, as he later wrote, “San Francisco, although filled with all the corruption and with all the plagues arising from civilization, did not then possess but thirteen first-class pianoforte players.” Any town of that size had plenty of amateurs, however. The proprietor of the concert hall suggested his son, who could play Liszt, Thalberg, and Gottschalk’s own music without difficulty. When Gottschalk suggested a rehearsal, the son saw no need. After all, the music was very easy.

Gottschalk recalled, “He then placed himself at the piano, and like all amateurs, after having executed a noisy flourish, attacked with boldness and innocence the piece of Tannhäusser. At the end of two bars, my mind was made up.” This kid would not work, and there was no option but to postpone the concert.

His piano tuner, however, had a better idea. He recognized that the young man could not play along with the other pianists without ruining the piece, but it wouldn’t hurt to have him on stage so long as no one could hear him! He removed the entire interior mechanism from one piano, leaving only a dummy keyboard. The amateur, with characteristic self-confidence, requested that his piano be placed in downstage near the footlights so all his friends could see him. Gottschalk gladly moved the dummy piano there.

Before the piece started, Gottshalk reminded all the others that they must not extemporize a prelude. The full effect demanded that all fourteen pianos take the audience by surprise in playing the opening trumpet flourish that begins the march. During the performance, Gottschalk looked over at the amateur and noticed that he looked superb, and that he would glance out into the audience as he played the most intricate passages with the greatest of ease.

The audience loved it and demanded an encore. The amateur’s friends shouted out his name. He was delighted with his success. At the time, the word “encore” did not mean, “play something else,” as it does today. It had its original meaning of “play it again.” Gottschalk decided to repeat the piece. Unfortunately, the amateur forgot that preludes were forbidden. He played a little chromatic scale, but no sound came from his piano. He tried again, with the same result and tried to get Gottschalk’s attention. Gottschalk quickly signaled the start of the piece, and all thirteen and a half pianists restarted the piece.

“My young man, to save appearances before the audience, made the pantomime of the passage, but his countenance, which I saw from below, was worth painting, it was a mixture of discouragement and spite. The fury with which he struck the poor instrument, which could do nothing, was very funny.”

Source: Notes of a Pianist, by Louis Moreau Gottschalk (1881).

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