Louis Moreau Gottschalk became the first well-known American concert pianist and the first American composer to be widely recognized in Europe. He was born to a Jewish businessman from London and a white Creole Haitian in 1829 in what is now the French Quarter of New Orleans, where he was influenced at an early age by Afro-Caribbean melodies and rhythms. As a young prodigy at the piano, Gottschalk made his musical debut at the old St. Charles Hotel in New Orleans when he was only 11. Then, in 1842, his parents took him to Europe for further study of the piano, and although he was rejected by the Paris Conservatory, he was accepted as a pupil by a succession of prominent piano tutors, including Charles Hallé (1819–1895), later the founder of the Hallé Orchestra in England.
Gottschalk soon attracted favorable notice from Chopin and Liszt—the latter calling him "the Alcibiades of the piano"—and commenced a promising career as a concert artist in Europe. However, his own early compositions, based largely on Creole material, were less successful on the Continent, and perhaps for this reason, he returned to the United States in 1853 to make his living as a barnstorming concert pianist, touring extensively in the United States, Canada, and Cuba with a repertoire that consisted largely of his own pieces.
As a result of his extensive concertizing, exhibitionism, and flamboyant lifestyle, Gottschalk had become a major figure on the American musical scene by the early 1860s. He remained loyal to the Union during the Civil War, freed three slaves he had inherited, and wrote an occasional piece for piano, "The Union," based on patriotic airs. Unfortunately, his growing status as a musical idol of "rock-star" proportions eventually led to the demise of his career in the United States. In 1865, he became enmeshed in an amorous liaison with a young female seminarian in California and was forced to flee the country to avoid prosecution.
Gottschalk spent the rest of his life touring - and still writing music - in South America, where he was a tremendous success. Alas, stricken with a ruptured appendix at a concert in Rio de Janeiro in 1869—reportedly while playing a piece called Morte! ("Death!") - he died only a few weeks later at the age of 40.
Not surprisingly, most of Gottschalk's many compositions are for piano, both two and four hands, but he also left two operas and a sprinkling of orchestral works, most notably a programmatic symphony called A Night in the Tropics that is occasionally heard today. Gottschalk himself claimed the title of "the Chopin of the Creoles," and his music draws heavily on the Creole, Caribbean, and Afro-American motifs and syncopations that prefigure jazz and ragtime. In this regard, he was one of the first composers to introduce American folk themes into 19th-century art music. His piano works, such as "The Banjo," "Pasquinade," "Bamboula," and "The Dying Poet" are often strongly rhythmic—with strings of repeated notes—and by turns highly virtuoistic, flamboyant, and mawkishly sentimental. Nowadays, Gottschalk is seldom considered a "serious" composer, but he remains consistently interesting, enjoyable, and often great fun to listen to.
American music-lovers are probably most familiar with Gottschalk's music from the ballet, Cakewalk , adapted from a selection of his piano pieces by composer Hershey Kay (1919–1961) for the American Ballet Theater in 1951. Then, in 1957, Kay re-orchestrated an early version of Gottschalk's Grande Tarantelle for piano and orchestra, Op. 67, and in that form, it has become a popular concert piece that was be included in the American Balalaika Symphony's 2004/2005 season.