• Ian Passmore

Music that doesn't suck, No. 41: A Night in the Tropics

By now, you all know I have a soft spot for “forgotten” composers, particularly the wartime Americans contemporaneous with Aaron Copland and Leonard Bernstein. Sadly, nearly all American composers from the 19th century are now forgotten…at least in terms of modern concert programming. One such case is the fascinating child prodigy Louis Moreau Gottschalk, whose unique cultural upbringing yielded some of the most interesting and popular music of his time.

Gottschalk was born in New Orleans in 1829, and became immersed in French Creole and Haitian musical traditions, leaving a permanent and distinctive mark on his music. Although his talent as a pianist was discovered quite early, he was rejected from the Paris Conservatory on the grounds of his nationality. Still, he remained in Paris, composing the first classical works to bear an obvious Louisiana Creole influence; and his considerable skill at the keyboard earned the recognition of luminaries such as Fryderyk Chopin and Franz Liszt. Gottschalk eventually returned to the US, but continued to travel extensively…most often to Central and South America, as well as Cuba. Captivated by the music he heard on his travels, Gottschalk composed his First Symphony in the late 1850s, subtitled, “La nuit des tropiques” (A Night in the Tropics).

The symphony’s first movement (also subtitled, “La nuit des tropiques”) was premiered in Havana in 1859; the full, two-movement work (the second movement is subtitle, “Une Fête sous les tropiques” (A Day in the Tropics) was performed over a year later with an orchestra of over 600 players! (This kind of concert on steroids was inspired by similar “productions” by the renowned French composer and conductor Hector Berlioz.)

The first movement has a gorgeous trumpet solo and a more traditional, “European” feeling; the second is, in all likelihood, the first example of a samba in symphonic music. The entire symphony lasts only about 20 minutes.

This performance features the Utah Symphony, led by Maurice Abravanel—enjoy! :)

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