Among the greatest early American pianists and composers, Gottschalk was born in New Orleans to an Ashkenazi Jewish businessman from London (Edward Gottschalk) and a French Creole mother (Aimée Marie Bruslé). He had six brothers and sisters, five of whom were half-siblings. His maternal grandmother Bruslé and his nurse Sally had both been born in Saint-Domingue (known later as Haiti). He was therefore exposed to a variety of musical traditions, and also played the piano from an early age. He was soon recognized as a prodigy by the New Orleans bourgeois establishment, making his informal public debut in 1840 at the new St. Charles Hotel.
Realizing that a European classical training was required to fulfill his musical ambitions, Gottschalk left the United States at age 13 and sailed to Europe with his father. The Paris Conservatoire rejected his application without hearing him, on the grounds of his being an American and unfit for such study. Gottschalk eventually gained access to the musical establishment through family friends but the importance of early compositions like Bamboula (Danse Des Nègres) and La Savane cannot be understated as they established him as a genuinely American composer, and not a mere copycat of the European written tradition. They carried a legacy of slave music in a romantic music context, and as such they were also precursors of jazz. They still stand as the first musical examples of American Creole musical culture, a mix of African-American and European traditions. After a concert at the Salle Pleyel, Frédéric Chopin remarked: “Give me your hand, my child; I predict that you will become the king of pianists.”
After Gottschalk returned to the United States in 1853, he traveled extensively while there and also to Central and South America. Gottschalk also traveled to Puerto Rico after his Havana debut and at the start of his West Indian period. He was quite taken with the music he heard on the island, so much so that he composed a work, probably in 1857, entitled Souvenir de Porto Rico; Marche des gibaros, Op. 31. “Gibaros” refers to the jíbaros, or Puerto Rican peasantry, and is an antiquated way of writing this name. The theme of the composition is a march tune which may be based on a Puerto Rican folk song form.
By the 1860s, Gottschalk had established himself as the best-known pianist in the New World. Although born and reared in New Orleans, he was a supporter of the Union cause during the American Civil War. He returned to his native city only occasionally for concerts, but he always introduced himself as a New Orleans native.
In May 1865, he was mentioned in a San Francisco newspaper as having “traveled 95,000 miles by rail and given 1,000 concerts”. However, he was forced to leave the United States later that year because of a scandalous affair with a student at the Oakland Female Seminary in Oakland, California. He never returned to the United States.
Gottschalk chose to travel to South America, where he continued to give frequent concerts. During one of these concerts, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on November 24, 1869, he collapsed from having contracted yellow fever. Just before his collapse, he had finished playing his romantic piece Morte! (translated from Brazilian Portuguese as “Death”), although the actual collapse occurred just as he started to play his celebrated piece Tremolo. Gottschalk never recovered from the collapse.
Three weeks later, on December 18, 1869, at the age of 40, he died at his hotel in Tijuca, Rio de Janeiro, probably from an overdose of quinine.
Gottschalk’s music was very popular during his lifetime and his earliest compositions created a sensation in Europe. Early pieces like Bamboula, La Savane, Le Bananier and Le Mancenillier were based on Gottschalk’s memories of the music he heard during his youth in Louisiana and are widely regarded as the earliest existing pieces of Creole music culture. In this context, some of Gottschalk’s work, such as the 13-minute opera Escenas campestres, retains a wonderfully innocent sweetness and charm. Gottschalk also utilized the Bamboula theme as a melody in his Symphony No. 1: A Night in the Tropics. Many of his compositions were destroyed after his death, or are lost.