Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Gottschalk - Souvenir de Porto Rico 'Marche de Gibaros'

Louis Moreau Gottschalk was born in New Orleans in 1829 and began playing the piano very early.  By 1840 he had given his first public performance as a child prodigy. At the age of thirteen he left with his father for Europe to get classical training, but he was denied entry into the Paris Conservatory because he was an American.

Despite the prejudice against Americans, Gottshalk managed to make his way into the European musical establishment through family connections and was exposed to classical technique in piano playing and composition and he learned from the examples.  His piano playing and  compositions were a sensation in Europe, and after his return to America in 1853, he began touring extensively. He toured all over The United States, Cuba, Central America and South America.

Gottshalk toured Puerto Rico in 1857, and while there took a short vacation and stayed at a sugar plantation owned by an English fan of his music. He was so taken with the scenery and local music he extended his to relax and compose. One of the pieces he wrote while there was Souvenir de Porto Rico for piano solo.  It is a march built upon two Puerto Rican folk songs. The piece is actually a set of double variations as the themes follow each other in succession and are varied upon each repetition. The subtitle  Marche de Gibaros comes from Gottshalk watching the peasant farmers, the Gibaros, work the fields. Gottshalk loved the sights and sounds of the Caribbean so much he stayed almost five years, absorbing and composing.

Gottshalk wrote about his inspiration for the piece:
"[I was] perched upon the edge of a crater, [and] my cabin overlooked the whole country. Every evening I moved my piano out upon the terrace, and played for myself alone, everything that the scene opened up before me inspired. It was there that I composed 'Marche des Gibaros.' "
Gottshalk's mother was creole, his grandmother and his nurse were both born in Haiti, so he was exposed to many different musical traditions from the beginning. He continued to absorb different musical traditions and styles for all of his short life.  Souvenir de Porto Rico is a fine example of the way Gottshalk combined Caribbean and African rhythms and folk song with classical form and virtuosity. He was using rhythms that became associated with Ragtime and Jazz long before they became popular.  All of this makes for very good music to listen to, and music that takes a virtuoso technique to do full justice.

Gottshalk was involved in a scandal with a student in Oakland, California in 1865 and left the U.S. never to return. He ended up in South America and died, age 40, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in 1869 from complications of malaria.

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