Gottschalk’s Grooves

By Steven Baur

Louis Moreau Gottschalk (1829-1869) holds a distinguished position as the first American to earn an international reputation as a legitimate composer in the European art music tradition. Nineteenth-century critics in both Europe and the Americas considered Gottschalk the rightful heir to Frédéric Chopin and Franz Liszt, pointing to his innovative piano works, and they positioned him as the founder of the first true American school of composition. His contemporaries and subsequent scholars alike have routinely identified Gottschalk’s incorporation of Afro Caribbean rhythmic idioms into Western compositional practice as the most original and innovative aspect of his music. Among his most influential works are those based on the pronounced, repetitive rhythmic patterns Gottschalk encountered in the multicultural New Orleans of his youth and during subsequent tours and residencies in Latin America. We recognize such repetitive schemes, commonly marked by syncopated rhythms and percussive timbres, as “grooves” in a variety of vernacular musical styles. As central as the element of groove is to much of Gottschalk’s music, this core component of his style has been treated only superficially in the scholarly literature. This post offers a preview of a larger study focusing on Gottschalk’s rhythmic-percussive innovations and the tangled issues surrounding his appropriation of elements from the musical culture of the people his own family enslaved.

In his memoirs, published posthumously in 1881, Gottschalk gratefully acknowledged that his family’s wealth enabled him to pursue music from a young age; he left unsaid that this wealth was built largely on his father’s participation in the slave trade. This same wealth enabled Gottschalk to study abroad with the best teachers in Paris and matriculate into the city’s fashionable salon culture, where he would earn the endorsements of Chopin, Hector Berlioz, and other members of Europe’s musical elite. His earliest commercial and critical success as a composer came with his so-called “Louisiana Trilogy,” three piano works based on Creole folk songs — songs he most likely learned from slaves owned by his family. Published between 1849 and 1851, these works have evocative titles and subtitles that foreground the “Black” element, an appeal to a Parisian public eagerly indulging its fascination with the “exotic.” The first of these, Bamboula (Dance des Nègres), takes its name from an Afro Caribbean folk dance and the traditional hand drum that accompanies it. The piece opens with the piano clearly designed to evoke the drum of its title, with forceful downbeats on a single pitch in the low register. Gottschalk soon establishes a groove based on the habañera rhythm, one of the primary rhythmic cells that undergird much Afro Caribbean music:

Habañera rhythm

The habañera groove animates much of Bamboula before Gottschalk brings the piece to its climax with additional rhythmic-percussive effects, including a “backbeat” effect in the piano’s highest register.  Gottschalk’s “Louisiana Trilogy” caused a sensation in Paris and catapulted the composer-pianist to international celebrity. Period commentators on both sides of the Atlantic celebrated Gottschalk’s novel, exotic rhythmic language, often marginalizing the composer and his Afro Caribbean sources in the same breath. For instance, writing in 1853, Edward Henry Durrell identified Bamboula as the “most original … and most characteristic” example of Gottschalk’s “brilliance,” while describing it as an effective expression of the “uncultivated, savage … wildness and abandon” of Black culture.

While Gottschalk explicitly evoked the drum in Bamboula, subsequent piano works go further in applying actual drumming techniques. Upon his return to the United States in 1853, Gottschalk introduced The Banjo, which soon joined the “Louisiana Trilogy” among his works that drew the greatest approbation from critics and audiences.  After a brief introduction, Gottschalk establishes a groove by assigning distinct rhythmic ostinato patterns to each hand. The left hand plays what later came to be known as the foxtrot dance rhythm (a quarter note followed by two eight notes), which would evolve into the conventional jazz swing ride cymbal pattern in the 1920s. The right hand emphasizes offbeats in a pattern identical to the girl group backbeat (as heard on the Shirelles’ iconic “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow” recorded just over 100 years later). Together they establish a groove that sustains the piece for 54 measures before anything resembling a melody enters.

Gottschalk builds the climactic ending to the Banjo with left- and right-hand exchange patterns identical to conventional sticking patterns later standardized among the “Thirteen Essential Rudiments of Drumming” by the National Association of Rudimental Drummers in 1933. Although the piece aims to evoke the sound of the banjo, the last 58 measures of The Banjo are built entirely on drumming rudiments No. 3 and No. 1, the 7-stroke roll (R R L L R R L   R R L L R R L) and the double-stroke roll (R R L L R R L L R R L L, etc.).

In 1854, Gottschalk embarked on his first tour of Cuba, expanding and deepening his knowledge of Afro Caribbean rhythmic idioms, and he soon began using other Afro Caribbean rhythmic cells, the tresillo and cinquillo in addition to the habañera.

tresillo rhythm
cinquillo rhythm
also a cinquillo rhythm

Gottschalk based his El Cocoyé (1854) on a song and dance popular among Black refugees from the Haitian revolution living in Santiago de Cuba. As in Bamboula, Gottschalk evokes the drum at the beginning of El Cocoyé, with low, forceful left-hand notes pounding out distinctive rhythms on a single repeated pitch. As in the Banjo, Gottschalk frequently engages repetitive hand-exchange patterns common to drumming, including the double-stroke roll and the 6-stroke roll. Unlike his earlier works, however, Gottschalk makes extensive use of tresillo and cinquillo rhythms in El Cocoyé in addition to the habañera.

Gottschalk’s subsequent five-year residency in the Caribbean (1857-62) occasioned his most original contribution to the symphonic repertory, the incorporation of Afro Caribbean percussion instruments into the Western orchestra. Gottschalk’s first symphony, commonly known as La Nuit des tropiques, was premiered at a “monster concert” he staged in Havana in February of 1860 featuring an orchestra of over 450 instrumentalists. Among the 78 percussion instruments advertised for the concert were maracas, timbales, bamboulas (hand drums), and guiros, in addition to standard orchestral percussion instruments (bass drums, snare drums, and cymbals). These Latin American instruments belonged to a tumba francesa ensemble that Gottschalk had heard in Santiago de Cuba during his 1854 visit. Tumba francesa ensembles, comprised of slaves, adopted the European music and dance forms of plantation owners, often in the spirit of mockery, and set them to African-derived rhythmic accompaniments. So impressed was Gottschalk with the tumba francesa drummers he heard in 1854 that he arranged for them to travel to Havana to take part in the premier of La Nuit des Tropiques six years later.            

Although it is difficult to ascertain precisely how the symphony’s percussion parts were intended to be performed, I believe that modern arrangements and recordings of the symphony are well off the mark. In the surviving manuscript, Gottschalk provides a single staff at the bottom of the score for the massive, heterogeneous percussion section engaged for the symphony. Labeled bamboula, the staff features only one measure of notated rhythm for a single drum, followed by simile marks, which disappear after 15 measures along with any trace of percussion parts. Gottschalk clearly intended for the tumba francesa musicians, almost certainly unfamiliar with Western music notation, to extemporize the symphony’s percussive accompaniment, as would have been their normal practice. He would have expected them to establish, sustain, and develop a repetitive rhythmic patterns through improvised variations in accent, timbre, and articulation; that is, he would have expected them to groove.

In the standard modern edition of the symphony (Boosey and Hawkes, 1965), Gaylen Hatton interprets Gottschalk’s one-measure rhythmic cell as a fixed part to be played with unvaried repetition and uniformity of timbre, dynamics, and articulation, none of which are consistent with Afro Caribbean hand drumming. Hand drums are capable of enormous performative nuance, as the tone and timbre vary widely depending on where the drumhead is struck, with what part of the hand(s), and to what extent the hand(s) remain on the drumhead to muffle or alter the tone. This Haitian folk drummer demonstrates a variety of hand drum tones, from muted notes with little resonance or sustain, to open tones with varying degrees of resonance and sustain, to higher-pitched rim slap accents. Contrast this with the hand drumming on this recording of Gottschalk’s symphony by the Vienna State Opera Orchestra.  With no variation in tone, timbre, or articulation, the playing is stiff and lifeless. Indeed, the whole orchestra seems indifferent to the subtleties of the groove.

Perhaps as problematic as the substandard performances of the symphony are the ways in which it has been packaged in modern recordings. The Vanguard Classics recording of the symphony, released on CD in 1995, features an album cover associating Gottschalk’s symphony with the primitive, exotic, and the hyper-sensual, signified by sexualized Black female bodies. The cover of a more recent release by Naxos features Gottschalk, bedecked in a tuxedo, bringing “civilization” to the “jungle,” where an alluring, seductively posed woman awaits him, again catering to colonialist sensibilities.

The poorly performed recordings and problematic packaging do a massive disservice to both Gottschalk’s music and the Afro Caribbean traditions he drew upon. In a very real sense, his symphony has never been heard as it was intended to be performed, excepting the few performances under the composer’s own direction. While Gottschalk’s cultural appropriations were indeed exploitative, an issue too complex to address in this blog post, they seem to be largely respectful of Afro Caribbean musical traditions, and, increasingly over his career, informed by his efforts to become knowledgeable about Afro Caribbean musical practices. Importantly, he collaborated with Afro Caribbean musicians and even placed the tumba francesa drummers front and centre of the racially integrated orchestra he organized for the premiere of his first symphony. Moving forward, we need to treat Gottschalk’s music with the same respect for and knowledge of his Afro Caribbean sources.

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