Receptivity to the cultural and musical values of Western Europe, especially the German-speaking lands, laid the foundation for the growth of classical music in the United States throughout the nineteenth century. The ascendancy of German musical culture in the United States began with American musicians’ importation and performance of scores by famous German composers in the 1820s and 1830s. The rise continued throughout the century as waves of German-speaking immigrant musicians played leading roles in the establishment of performing ensembles. Prominent critics such as John Sullivan Dwight, Richard Storrs Willis, and Theodore Hagen bolstered the efforts of these organizations by roundly applauding their performances of Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Schumann, and others. Moreover, as political historian Jessica Gienow-Hecht has recently argued, the establishment of foundational components of the United States’ musical infrastructure, including the solidification of a canonical symphonic repertoire, was the result of a “soft diplomacy” rooted in an aggressive agenda of German cultural expansionism.1 It is easy, then, for us to conceive of the world of classical music in the nineteenth-century United States as a sponge perpetually absorbing musical [End Page 443] influences, or a nation whose musical identity was determined by its status as a cultural colony.
These passive images of the United States are precisely what “nationalist,” native-born American composers such as William Henry Fry (1813–64) and George Frederick Bristow (1825–98) sought to demolish throughout their careers, and especially during a protracted debate in 1854 that included several prominent critics along the East Coast, as well as the board of directors of the New York Philharmonic. The United States was self-sufficient, Fry and Bristow argued, and did not need foreign musicians or composers in order to forge a distinct musical identity. Scholars of American musical nationalism have long championed this David-and-Goliath tale that pits the battered and neglected composers against the powerful, established Philharmonic, itself a primarily German entity, and the journalists who supported it in print. Though heartwarming, the tendency to see a nascent musical “Americanism” in the music of Fry and Bristow seemingly ignores the important historical fact that the United States had begun to assert its autonomy as an international political and cultural power long before Fry and Bristow served as its musical defenders. Why was there any question over whether or not one of the world’s largest nations could or would secure an independent musical identity? A contemporary of Fry and Bristow, Louis Moreau Gottschalk (1829–69), understood that perhaps the road to U.S. musical preeminence could be established abroad and that fighting a domestic battle against a German musical army with seemingly endless reinforcements was futile.
Ironically, Fry and Bristow attained only limited success in their struggle to be recognized as legitimate U.S. composers, but widespread approbation seemed effortless for Gottschalk the pianist, who rarely engaged in chauvinistic spats with the press. Even before he made his U.S. debut as a recitalist, one commentator placed him alongside historian George Bancroft, poet Edgar Allen Poe, novelist James Fenimore Cooper, essayist Edwin Percy Whipple, and sculptor Hiram Powers as an icon of the United States’ superior cultural achievement.2 Just after his debut recital in New York City in February of 1853, another writer hailed him as a true American original:
His “Bamboula,” “Bananier,” &c., are truly original specimens of a new and delightful, a purely American, or, if you please southern Creole school, the Gottschalk school, as it may yet be called. The warmth, the feeling, the poetry of the compositions . . . are Mr. Gottschalk’s own, are legitimate, national, and classical and will hereafter be identified with his name.3
Although these writers clearly understood Gottschalk’s early music as “American,” their conclusions are especially remarkable because they also took great pains to note that he was a Louisianan American of mixed [End Page 444] European descent (i.e., a Creole). His music thus reflected a Louisianan cultural milieu that was a far cry from the Anglo-Saxon, northeastern learned culture of Bancroft, Cooper, Whipple, and Powers, some exemplars of what many at the time thought “America” truly was.4 In Gottschalk’s early style, then...