88 Keys to Freedom: Segues Through the History of American Piano Music

While 12-year old Louis Moreau Gottschalk was in Paris studying composition in the early 1840s, and tensions in Texas were leading to the confrontation at the Alamo, Charles Grobe, the “piano piece factory” (a “sell out” in mid-1800s slang), was proving that quantity over quality can sometimes grant momentary—and monetary—success. Grobe churned out over 2000 parlor pieces (“Rock beside the Sea With Charming Variations,” “Bonnie Blue Flag With Beautiful Variations,” etc.) for genteel young ladies and their willing audiences, and consequently selling quite a few more copies than the quality piano music written for virtuosi. That said, and to be fair to Grobe, his flashy “United States Grand Waltz,” Op. 43 (1845) is a sprightly humdinger, and one of his better pieces.

Like the multi-ethnic culture of New Orleans itself, growing up in the old quarter, Gottschalk absorbed influences from his English-Jewish and French Creole parents while learning traditional Creole, Latin and African-American songs and dances. A composer of more than 100 pieces for the piano, Gottschalk became one of the first American-born musicians to achieve international fame. His compositions are unique in style, with compelling rhythms and melodies that were “exotic” to European audiences. And, in comparison to the Classical—and later chromatically oriented—composers, Gottschalk seldom modulates to new keys, preferring to establish a mood or modality and stick with it—the aesthetic of most folk music. A pianist will appreciate how well his music fits under the hands, and how he provides just the right amount of material to produce the effect that is being called for at the moment.

The Banjo: Grotesque Fantasie, American Sketch, Op. 15 (1855), is one of Gottschalk’s best-known works, together with the orchestral and two-piano versions of his symphony with Cuban percussion Noches de los Tropicos (1858-1859). The Banjo features captivating imitations of banjo rhythms and strumming, and the composer also works in subtle strains of Stephen Foster‘s “Camptown Races” and the spiritual “Roll, Jordan, Roll.” The instrument itself was an original African-American invention based on memories of West African models.

Gottschalk’s Souvenir de Porto Rico: Marche des Gibaros, Op. 31 (c. 1859) grabs the listener with its compelling play between a minor key dance-like march and a secondary tango beat (a New Orleans-style combination still heard today) that slowly accumulates notes as the native marchers appear, and then mysteriously de-accumulates as they vanish in the distance.

In contrast to these rhythmically-driven works, Gottschalk’s Berceuse, Op. 47 (1860) is a touching cradle song based on the French tune “Fais dodo, mon bébé” (Go beddy-bye, my baby) with impressionistic embellishments and quaint salon-piano style hand-crossings.

A real virtuosic show-stopper, Gottschalk’s “L’Union: Paraphrase de Concert on

National Airs,” Op. 48 (1862) is this southern-born musician’s declaration of loyalty to the Union: a tumultuous introduction—with grand minor to major chords and fiery (strepitoso: clamourous, resounding) descending octaves alternating with a pedal point—is followed by imagistic settings of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” and a mind-bending coda that combines “Yankee Doodle” and “Hail Columbia” in grandioso counterpoint. Gottschalk’s taste just saves this work from becoming a hack pastiche like his showy but unfortunate “Grand Triumphal Fantasy on the Brazilian National Anthem” (1869). Romantic medleys such as “L’Union” were woven into the national musical consciousness by the early 1900s, right at the time Charles Ives began to create his subtle biographical memory pieces like as Three Places in New England, that would also famously quote popular American tunes.

Enchanted by the Mason family estate called Silverspring in Orange, New

Jersey, William Mason, the son of Dr. Lowell Mason (the great American hymnodist and founder of music education programs in American public schools), composed his Silver

Spring, Op. 6 (1856), a work unlike anything he had composed before or was ever to compose again: his Novelette, Op. 31, No. 2 of 1870, for example, is in the style of Schumann. The score itself with its waterfall cascades and geyser-like ascents looks like fine lace or sunlight sparkling on rippling water (half a century before Debussy‘s “Reflets dans l’eau”). This Lisztian arcing gesture continues throughout, transforming into rich tremolo harmonies at one point, interrupted once by a contemplative four-measure passage played ad libitum. More complex harmonies (added 6th and 9th chords mostly) are formed by passing and surrounding non-chordal tones that resonate with the root chords while the sustain pedal is held down (which is very exactly marked). The most complex harmonic relationships (eg., C-sharp minor alternates with F maj. 7 flat 5) occur in the first five systems, and there the pedaling is sparse—as if the water is not yet flowing; when the melody begins, the pedaling becomes fuller, which smoothes out the texture.

Silver Spring became the one work by Mason that was played worldwide, and is dedicated to composer William Wallace whose own lovely Nocturnes have clean, unembellished melodic lines influenced by Chopin. Mason championed music by other composers including works by G. F. Bristow, George F. Root, Henry Holden

Huss, Howard Brockway, and enthusiastically promoted the works of Edward

MacDowell, whose first piano sonata he publicly performed every day for a month in New Hampshire.

From 88 Keys to Freedom: Segues Through the History of American Piano Music
by “Blue” Gene Tyranny
© 2003 NewMusicBox