on 12 August 1999
One doesn't have to read far into S. Frederic Starr's biography of Louis Moreau Gottschalk to learn three things. First, that the author pursued more leads and sifted through more material than anyone else thus far in the search for information about this musical legend. Second, that Mr. Starr just adores Gottschalk's music and wishes you would, too. And third, that it's a darn shame there aren't more editors in the publishing business these days. Overall an illuminating and enjoyable book, Bamboula! covers more details about Gottschalk's concert programs and love for his mother than is perhaps necessary, but one can only admire the biographer's persistance in researching and writing this book. His descriptions of the musical institutions and leaders of the middle of the last century, particularly, reveal much about our musical tastes today. The material might perhaps have been conveyed more effectively with fewer adjectives, but that's a stylistic quibble. A major flaw, though, is the lack of a discography. Mr. Starr refers to several compositions of Gottschalk's, noting that certain performances of them are inadequate. But how is the reader to judge - or to enjoy any of this marvelous music - if there is no guide to what is available on recordings? Readers of this type of semi-scholarly book are more likely to buy a CD than to order a score and analyze it, aren't they? Anyway, I recommend this book to anyone who wishes to learn more about music and culture in 19th-century America.
on 19 March 2011
L.M Gottschalk has always been ill-treated by the American musicologists and scholars, and this book is no better than the previous biographies of the musician.
The book is badly flawed, and this time Frederick Starr has no excuse. When Vernon Loggins wrote "Where the words end" in the 1950s, the first ever attempt to a serious biography of Gottschalk, he was desperately searching for the notebooks and letters of the musician. He suspected that they should be somewhere, but could not find them. They appear in the early 1980s, thanks to the tenacity of Robert Oggerfeld, who was a collector of memorabilia of the pianist. They are currently in the New York Library but Starr did not consult them probably because he discovered that Gottschalk writes in French to his family (even letters to his father, when Gottschalk is ten years old, are in French).
Musicologists in the U.S want Gottschalk to be the first known American composer, so they go to great lengths to have biographies focused on the American years of the wandering pianist. Starr published his book in 2000. In 1985, the first French book about Gottschalk, using all the letters discovered in the 1980s, revealed that the mother of Gottschalk was a Brusley de Beaubert. Her grand-father was the first judge of Nouvelle-Orleans. Gottschalk was sent to Paris when ten, to live with his cousins: the Fauque de Jonquières. That well-connected aristocratic family pathed the way for Gottschalk to be received at the Spanish court, where Liszt, a commoner, could not.
There is no mention in Starr's biography of this family background and he can't even get the name of Gottschalk's mother right. He also keep calling Gottschalk, Louis-Moreau, which was its stage name, but who was only Moreau for his friends and his sisters.
It is this exceptional family background that explains the unravelling of Gottschalk. When his father, a speculator on the cotton market, lose all his fortune and dies soon after, the family, who was then in Paris with no intention to return to Louisana cannot keep its social rank among the aristocracy. For the sake of appearance, Gottschalk advises his mother, not to lose face, to retire in the South of France, where a Brusley de Beaubert still lives. She refuses.
Gottschalk's sisters could not marry anymore in their social sphere (they were going to flee social disgrace by going to London where a Fauque de Jonquières has exiled himself for political reason. It is the start of Napoleon III reign and the old the aristocracy is a fierce opponent of the Prince-President soon to become Emperor ).
Gottschalk who was in New York for what was supposed to be a short stay of three months became stranded in a country where he had no intention to live.
Frederick Starr's book surfs on those events. He only repeats what Vernon Loggins wrote 50 years before. As for the South American years, for which there are now many letters, not yet translated into English, Starr commits the same error to follow Vernon loggins' book and assumptions. My conclusion: if you want to know what kind of man Gottschalk was and why he never returned to Europe, you should read the French book (so far not available in English) and if you want to write about Gottschalk you should be fluent in French, Spanish and English. It is clearly not the case of Frederick Starr.