Louis Moreau Gottschalk was born in New Orleans in 1829. His father was a polyglot and highly educated businessman, who had been born in London of Spanish Jewish ancestry. His mother was from an aristocratic French family. At the time New Orleans was a fascinating cosmopolitan city, having been purchased from France by the United States only in 1803. People there spoke more French (Creole) and Spanish than English. Louis Moreau revealed his musical gifts very soon. By the age of thirteen he was sent to study in Paris. However, as the director of the Paris Conservatoire did not believe that "barbarian" Americans could be gifted musicians, he was not even allowed to audition. He then took private lessons with Stamaty, who was then teaching also the seven-year-old Saint-Saëns. It did not take long for Gottschalk to be noticed and appreciated. In 1845 Chopin predicted a bright future for him. By 1849 the young pianist was already on his way to his twofold fame as virtuoso and as composer. He was already gathering triumph after triumph during his countless concert tours. Berlioz wrote: "Gottschalk is one of the very small number who possess all the different elements of a consummate pianist. All his faculties clothe him with irresistible prestige and give him sovereign power.
He is an accomplished musician; he knows just how far fancy may be indulged in expression. He knows the limits beyond which any freedom taken with the rhythm produces only confusion and disorder, and upon these limits he never encroaches. There is an exquisite grace in his manner of phrasing sweet melodies and of scattering the light passages from the top of the keyboard. The boldness, brilliancy, and originality of his playing at once dazzle and astonish." The young pianist distinguished himself by his extremely fast octave moves, his rapid, light figuration and ornaments in the very high octaves and his incredibly fast repetition of identical notes.
His piano pieces made audiences ecstatic by their freshness and strength of expression. Gottschalk fascinated his public. He was a very good-looking man of a charming and generous nature with a pronounced weakness for his many female admirers. And he savoured the life in the tropics. In 1863 Gottschalk wrote in New York: "I again began to live according to the customs of those primitive countries, which, if they are not strictly virtuous, are nonetheless terribly attractive. I saw again those beautiful triguenas, with red lips and brown bosoms, ignorant of evil, sinning with frankness, without fearing the bitterness of remorse.
The moralists, I well know, condemn all this, and they are right. But poetry is often in antagonism with virtue; and now that I am shivering under the icy wind and grey sky of the north, now that I hear discussions about Erie, Prairie du Chien, Harlem and Cumberland, now that I read in the newspapers the lists of dead and wounded, the devastation of incendiaries, the abductions and assassinations that are committed on both sides under the name of retaliation, I find myself excusing the demisavages of the savannahs who prefer their poetic barbarism to our barbarous progress."
Gottschalk spent the last years of his life in south America, where he died in Brazil in 1869.