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Gottschalk's Great "Souvenir de Porto Rico, Op. 31"

Cory Hall

Louis Moreau Gottschalk (1829-1869) was a great American composer who incorporated Creole, Latin American, and Afro-Cuban elements into his unique and exciting music, which many consider to be the earliest forerunner of ragtime. I remember first being introduced to Gottschalk around the age of 12 by my piano teacher at the time, Aline Asmundsen. She was a very nice "older" lady who taught piano and happened to live just a few blocks away from me. I remember riding my bike to lessons every week to Mrs. Asmundsen's house. I had already been playing ragtime for at least a couple years and remember around this time playing Maple Leaf Rag for my 6th grade music class in school. Mrs. Asmundsen introduced Gottschalk's music to me from a record and then we decided I work on Tournament Galop, an exciting "solon" virtuoso piece. I remember wearing out our old upright piano with Tournament Galop. Here is a performance of it, much later at around age 46 when I decided to revive it for one of my YouTube videos: [youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=srXotqGMAEI&w=560&h=315]

Many pianists and musicologists consider Gottschalk's greatest solo piano work to be Souvenir de Porto Rico, Op. 31, composed in 1857 and published in 1860. It bears the subtitle "Marche de Gibaros," "Gibaros" referring to the Puerto Rican peasants of the time. What I find interesting and that I was not aware of for many years is that the work is based on the Christmas folk song Si me dan pasteles, denmelos calientes (Wikipedia). Another remarkable trait about Souvenir de Porto Rico is that "The piece makes free use of Latin and Afro-American melodies and rhythms almost fifty years before early ragtime and jazz would popularize its use" (Wikipedia).

Not only is Souvenir de Porto Rico remarkable because of its infectious, quasi-ragtime style rhythms, but its highly unique form also contributes much to its success. It consists of only two sections -- "A" and "B" -- which are repeated a total of six times, in a sense, much like a theme and variations. It begins calmly and with each successive repetition of the "AB" section it gains more energy and momentum by Gottschalk's ingenious and effective use of additive note values. After the climactic fourth section, replete with bravura-style octaves, the piece begins winding down until the music simply dissipates into an identically calm atmosphere of the beginning. The overall effect of this symmetrical form is hypnotic and mesmerizing. Here is a visual layout of the large-scale form:

AB (calm), AB (more), AB (yet more!), AB (climax!), AB (winds down), AB (winds down more), Coda

I have my own strong opinions about its performance. I believe that the more one changes tempos throughout the variations, the more the piece suffers in its musical effectiveness. There is no reason to begin slowly and speed up the second and third variations up to a "presto" style fourth section and then slow down gradually until the calm ending. In fact, I believe this popular approach (taken by most pianists I have heard) ruins the music because most of the hypnotic and mesmerizing effect is created through unity in tempo. In my performance, I stick to one tempo from beginning to end with perhaps a slight accelerando into the climactic octave section. This is the main way in which my general conception and performance differs from most other pianists. I hope you enjoy it!

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wz2ThXwx8yY&w=560&h=315]