Gottschalk stands tall among 19th-century classical composers.
Gottschalk stands tall among 19th-century classical composers. Credit: Wikipedia

Why has the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra under its current director, Carlos Miguel Prieto, completely neglected the city’s most renowned composer, Louis Moreau Gottschalk?

Under two previous LPO directors, Gottschalk’s Louisiana-tinged orchestral works were performed and enjoyed by local audiences. Back in the 1980s, before the LPO’s reorganization, French-born conductor Philippe Entremont even made a video film about Gottschalk’s life and music in which he personally performed with the orchestra on the piano.

In the years since, members of the orchestra have drawn Prieto’s attention to arrangements of Gottschalk’s music, and so have I — to no avail.

New Orleans is justly proud of its musical tradition. Home to the first and best opera company in America in the first half of the nineteenth century, it sponsored as many as three orchestras at one time before the Civil War. Beyond this, it was also home to America’s first great composer and the first American artist in any field to garner a truly global reputation: Louis Moreau Gottschalk (1829-1869).

Sent by his father to study in Paris, Gottschalk was a sensation, both as performer and composer. Chopin attended his debut concert and praised him to the skies. Proud New Orleanians dubbed him “the Chopin of the Creoles.” Berlioz admired Gottschalk as a colleague and friend, as did Offenbach, who often performed with him.

It was Gottschalk who, in the years 1849-1863, composed many syncopated piano works that anticipated ragtime and jazz by half a century. Half a century later, when Jelly Roll Morton and other pianists held a piano competition at the St. Louis World’s Fair, all contestants were expected to perform a piece by Gottschalk.

Unfortunately, much of Gottschalk’s music, including both of his operas, has been lost. Until recently, his orchestral compositions were performed only in bowderlized arrangements “reconstructed” from the piano scores. Predictably, these have more the aura of Hollywood than of New Orleans. Though widely performed, they lack most of Gottschalk’s distinctive voicing and have none of the rich texture of his compositions.

Fortunately, the American conductor and musicologist Richard Rosenberg has pored over all surviving manuscripts and produced authoritative reconstructions of Gottschalk’s actual scoring. Rosenberg’s pioneering recording of Gottschalk’s complete orchestral works was a sensation when it was issued by Naxos in 2007. Thanks to Rosenberg, lost gems of American music have miraculously returned to life!

But not in New Orleans. Recent audiences in Gottschalk’s native city have yet to hear any of this. Prieto has now spent a decade in the Crescent City as LPO director. He has many achievements to his credit and his contract has been extended for several more years. But Prieto acts as if Gottschalk never existed. He has included not one composition by New Orleans’ most renowned composer in a concert, and has turned his back on those who have attempted to bring Gottschalk to his attention. This is strange, given the fact that he misses no chance to declare his love of New Orleans and its culture.

Rather than perform works by a trail-blazing New Orleanian, Prieto prides himself on having made the Louisiana Philharmonic a platform for the performance of little-known works by Latin American composers. This interesting initiative has led to some excellent concerts.

It will be a good test of whether his professed love of New Orleans and its culture is real, or just words.

Here’s the irony: Gottschalk, in his day, was personally revered and his music loved in Cuba and throughout South America. Aficionados of Latin America’s cultural heritage are aware that Gottschalk did more than anyone else in the nineteenth century to promote classical music across the region. Indeed, Gottschalk was the first truly Pan American artist in any field and certainly the most distinguished. When he died in Rio in 1869, hundreds of thousands of Brazilians lined the streets to glimpse his funeral procession.

We do not know if Prieto’s neglect of Gottschalk is due to ignorance of the composer or to some prejudice against one of New Orleans’ favorite sons. Ether way, it is an insult to the city that he claims to love, but it is not too late to rectify this oversight.

Prieto can reclaim the high ground in one of two ways. First, the LPO could contract with Rosenberg for the use of his authoritative editions of Gottschalk’s orchestral works: his so-called “A Night in the Tropics and “Montevideo” symphonies, his astonishingly syncopated tonadilla operetta, “Escenas Campestres Cubanas,” his brilliant “Variations on the Brazilian National Anthem” for piano and orchestra, etc.

Prieto could then conduct these in live performances, and even record them. Alternatively, the LPO could engage Rosenberg himself as guest conductor to perform and record these same works from scores he has transcribed from the original manuscripts.

With a demonstrated appreciation of the rich nuances in Gottschalk’s own scoring that even a talented generalist like Prieto might miss, Rosenberg has conducted concerts of Gottschalk’s work in every major capital of South America.

The LPO’s administrators and board will immediately cry that there is no money for this most promising course of action. Having raised $10 million for American orchestras (of which LPO received over $200,000) I know this is precisely the kind of project for which money can be raised.

Either way, it is time for the LPO to embrace the city and state’s most distinguished composer. Abraham Lincoln did so, by attending several Gottschalk performances in Washington during the Civil War. So did the great American choreographer George Balanchine, who recognized Gottschalk as a true American original. New York audiences go wild whenever the American Ballet Theater performs Balanchine’s “Tarantella” to the music of Gottschalk’s “Grande Tarantelle.” The same company also produced a rollicking ballet, “Great Galloping Gottschalk,” set to music by the renowned New Orleanian.

Carlos Miguel Prieto should now seize the opportunity to right a wrong that has persisted for a decade, and in the process add his own name to this distinguished list. It will be a good test of whether his professed love of New Orleans and its culture is real, or just words.

Frederick Starr, the author of “Bamboula! The Life and Times of Louis Moreau Gottschalk” (Oxford University Press), has published five books on the history and culture of New Orleans, beginning with “New Orleans Unmasqued” and “Southern Comfort: The Garden District of New Orleans.” He is co-founder and clarinetist with the Louisiana Repertory Jazz Ensemble, which has issued numerous recordings, toured internationally, and performed at Jazz Fest annually since 1982.