Pickin’ Banjos: Celebrating “Great Galloping Gottschalk”

Today’s birthday to celebrate is that of American original Louis Moreau Gottschalk. Check out the nice web piece my WGBH colleague Cathy Fuller put together a couple of years ago, pairing up Gottschalk’s iconic (and, I would say, groundbreaking) 1855 composition The Banjo with Gloucester, Mass., painter Fitz Henry Lane’s New York Harbor,  “composed” during the same year, and now hanging at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.   As Cathy puts it,

The year is 1855, and the two artists come from very different circumstances. One of them was forced to stay in one place all his life; the other was famous for globetrotting.

The painter Fitz Henry Lane (1804-1865) lost the use of his legs before his second birthday. The paralysis was thought to have come from ingesting poisonous jimsonweed. He would never recover.

The musician Louis Moreau Gottschalk (1829-1869) became America’s first traveling virtuoso – a pianist/composer who did an unbelievable amount of touring. He gave uncountable concerts in Europe, Central America, South America and Cuba. Sometimes called the “Chopin of the Creoles,” he worked into his music the syncopations of Louisiana and the Caribbean, creating pieces that anticipated jazz and ragtime. His music really had little to do with Chopin’s, but his spectacular control of the instrument was caricaturized by images of a wild pianist with hundreds of flying fingers.

 

Music and Art: Louis Moreau Gottschalk & Fitz Henry Lane

Actually, there IS a pretty significant connection between Chopin and Gottschalk, as we discovered in one of our Radio Chopin episodes called “Chopin Comes to America.”   Sample grab:

When Gottschalk was 13, his father packed the young piano prodigy off to Paris to study at the world-famous Conservatoire which at first REJECTED his application, his examiner declaring, “America is a country of steam engines.”

But Gottschalk chugged through and by 1845, he was making his Paris debut at the Salle Pleyel. On the program: Chopin’s Piano Concerto in E minor. In the audience: the composer himself.

Chopin met Gottschalk after the concert, and heaped praise on the young American, predicting a brilliant future for the teenaged pianist. Hector Berlioz was there too, and spoke of Gottschalk’s “exquisite grace, brilliant originality, and thundering energy.”

Episode 14: Chopin Comes to America

As for his signature piece, it’s amazing what a wide range of interpretation it gets, and if YouTube is any indication, how much it represents “America” to foreign audiences as much as any work by Copland, Gershwin, or Bernstein. I first discovered Gottschalk through the mid-70s by pianist Ivan Davis, a few of which you can find on YouTube.  Later, in DC, I was blown away by the sound and incredibly solid playing by pianist Lambert Orkis, who recorded a lot of Gottschalk on the composer’s instrument of choice: a 9-foot Chickering, made right here in the Hub of the Universe.

Image

As for recordings of more recent vintage…. I usually admire the unusual repertory – and performances by the eccentric Cypriot pianist Cyprien Katsaris.  But he seems to take the “Serenade Grotesque” subtitle a little too much to heart, dropping and adding notes as he pleases while he buzzes through it like he’s on a bullet train to Bejing.  Irish pianist Philip Martin, on the other hand, gives it an almost ponderous opening at this performance in Mexico City.  And then there is this highly nuanced (and nicely shot) performance by Dutch pianist Regina Albrink.  I’d never heard her playing before but i’ll be listening for more after hearing this!

 

 

 

 

Dvorak’s White Grand – The Saga of the Petrof Piano

Rummaging around in the proverbial shoebox of old photos from an old Euro vacation, i ran across a Throwback Thursday-worthy shot of me tickling the ivories on Antonín Dvořák’s own ivory-colored piano.

BKR at the Dvorak Piano

Did Dvorak actually own this gilded white grand?

The photo was taken at the Dvorak Museum in a leafy section of Prague, in a restored Baroque mansion called – and, no, I’m not making this up – “Villa Amerika” – appropriate for the composer who became so famous in the New World, I suppose!   I recall it was in a different location when I visited there in the late ’90s, but today, the white piano now gets pride of place in a small concert hall on the second floor, perched below an ornate frescoed ceiling.

 

But it got me to wondering about the Museum and more still about its Liberace-esque gilded white grand.  Did Dvorak really live there?  Did he actually play that instrument?  And what kind of a piano was it, exactly?

 

Villa Amerika - the Dvorak Museum in Prague

Villa Amerika – the Dvorak Museum in Prague

Dvorak Museum Concert Hall

The White Piano at home

 

The answers: 1) No, Dvorak actually lived in a small place not far away, on Zitna street.  But the Museum holds a lot of his various artifacts, including his viola.

2) Doubtful. Since I visited, the Museum has subsequently acquired Dvorak’s actual piano, a beautiful mahogany 1879 Bösendorfer, built in Vienna.

3) The piano, it turns out, is a Petrof, the storied family-owned Czech manufacturer run by a fifth-generation descendent of founder Antonin Petrof, born just two years before Dvorak.   And therein lies a tale!

It turns out that the company went into business in 1864 in the central Czech town of Hradec Králové, about two hours east of Prague, after young Antonin returned from an apprenticeship in Vienna and persuaded his father to turn their cabinet-making business into a piano factory.    And the apogee of success happened for both “Tonys” at about the same time: Just as Dvorak was returning from “Amerika” and about to take up the directorship of the Prague Conservatory, Antonín Petrof is appointed by the Emperor as the court piano-builder for the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

But after that the story becomes a tale of booms, busts, war, and then the advent of the Iron Curtain.  In 1948, the Petrof factory was nationalized, and became a state-run factory of a profoundly diminished reputation until the Petrof family got their company back in 1993.  And if you do the math, that means that the Petrof company is 150 years old this year!

Read more about the Petrof Piano Saga here: an amazing story of courage, determination, and a family’s extraordinary commitment to exemplary piano building tradition...and check out this video visit to the Petrof Piano factory below, replete with the roll call (with a few hilarious misspellings) of Petrof piano artists,including Ray Charles (who even had one in his home), Count Basie, Bill Evans, Mal Waldron, Lynne Arriale, Richard Clayderman (!), and Jacques Loussier.

Ray Charles' favorite piano brand?

Ray Charles’ favorite piano brand?

Further research reveals that the Petrof pianos have long been the house-supplied instruments in the storied Rudolfinum in Prague, where their rather heavy action and even regulation was preferred by such luminaries as Rudolf Firkusny, Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli, and Ivan Moravec.   (One of Moravec’s great recordings: a 1963 disc of pieces by Chopin, Mozart, and Beethoven, was recorded on a Petrof.)

Then there’s the Petrof on display in the glittering concert hall in Prague Castle. Check out this video of violinist Josef Suk and pianist Jan Panenka playing Dvorak, natch:

 

But I was still curious to hear what that gilded white Petrof in the Dvorak museum sounded like.  So, after a lot of interet scouring, I did come up with a grainy video containing Dvorak Romance for violin and piano, Op. 11, as well as Chopin’s Ballade No. 3.  Incomplete performances, sadly, but complete enough to reveal that Dvorak’s white Petrov looks far better than it sounds…