Gottschalk and the Rail

Thanks to the boom in American railway construction that coincided exactly with his peak concertizing period, [Louis Moreau] Gottschalk covered more miles in less time than any other virtuoso of the day, playing not only big cities but small mill and mining towns from coast to coast and bringing European fine-art music to audiences of a kind that would never have heard it in Europe. Toward the end of his concert career he calculated that between 1853 and 1865 he had given 1,100 recitals and logged more than 95,000 miles by rail. (III, 379)

Think about those numbers again: 1,100 recitals. When you factor in that Gottschalk was only concertizing seven out of the twelve-year span given, that’s over 150 a year. 95,000 miles. That’s about 13,500 a year in the same seven-year span, or enough to travel from Los Angeles to New York and back seventeen and a half times on modern freeways.

Sometimes the nature of your success is dictated by when you are born. Malcolm Gladwell pointed this out in his book Outliers, when he noted that about 20% of the richest people in history (from the pharaohs to Bill Gates) were Americans from a single generation, all born in the 1830s. The main companies these guys worked for and founded? Standard Oil Company, Carnegie Steel Company, and Central Pacific Railroad. When was Gottschalk born? 1829.

Gottschalk returned from Paris for good in 1853, just in time to capitalize on the never-before-available transportation opportunities in a country as vast as America. If he had been born a generation earlier (say in 1810, the same year as Chopin), history would tell a different tale of him.



  1. Mark Samples says:

    On second thought, maybe the real lesson is that Gottschalk should have gone into the railway business, and left piano playing as a hobby…

  2. Zach Wallmark says:

    Haha! This is a fascinating observation. Gottschalk happened to be there to capitalize on burgeoning technological developments; he certainly couldn’t have traversed that much ground on the back of a horse. He was the jet-setter of his age. The sheer number of concert appearances is more a testament to his determination and energy, however, than it is to the technologies at his disposal. Playing exhausting strings of one-nighters was nothing new, but performing in locations that were so spread out certainly was.

    It brings to mind (completely tangentially) that series of concerts Phil Collins gave when the Berlin Wall came down: using a Concord supersonic jet, he played shows in New York, London, Tokyo, and Johannesburg all on the same day. Now that’s a lot of miles logged in the service of music!

  3. Robinson McClellan says:

    Hi Mark and Zach,

    This is unrelated to this post, but a while back you posted a link to an interactive geographical timeline (or something to that effect) for Renaissance composers, esp in France/Flanders. Or that’s the best I remember, anyway.

    I’d love to look at it but can no longer find the post where the link was, nor think of any search terms that bring it up.

    Do you remember this, and if so, can you send me the link?

    Thanks so much.

    Btw, in advance of my upcoming DMA orals in composition, I’ve just read vols 2-5 since July – whew! I didn’t have time for vol 1, so your posts have been a great substitute to give me an idea of what Turuskin covered. It’s been a great read, and nice to have you as company.


  4. Mark Samples says:

    That was a link given to us by Michael Scott Cuthbert, at MIT. You can find it here:

    Best of luck on orals, and I’m glad this site has been of use!

    1. Robinson McClellan says:

      Ah perfect – thanks so much. What a beautifully designed timeline, and super useful.

      Looking forward to continuing to follow your progress – I won’t spoil the ending for you (by 2010 there is no music left at all! just kidding).


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