By Cathy Fuller
Pairing a piece of music with one of the pieces of art in the Museum of Fine Arts’ new Art of the Americas Wing, I’ve tried to find pairs that were created in the same year. Even when artists have vastly different sensibilities, there is inevitably a meaningful connection to be made.
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.
Fitz Henry Lane was born in Gloucester. While he could have followed in his father’s footsteps as a sail maker, his artistic talents bloomed early. He went to Boston and apprenticed as a lithographer, and then came back to Gloucester, where he designed a house and lived at Duncan’s Point until his death. It’s easy to feel his deep connection to the water. The 1855 painting “New York Harbor” radiates a rich and emotional glow with noble ships and a warm sunrise. There is a kind of reverence in his vision that makes the busy place seem serene.
While Lane was sitting still, mastering his evocative, signature marine style, composer/pianist Louis Moreau Gottschalk was taking the world by storm, giving concerts of his own music to adoring crowds. America’s first touring virtuoso became a sort of matinee idol, giving monster concerts, sometimes with up to 650 musicians! If you’re interested, the diaries of his travels are published and available. Notes of a Pianist: The Chronicles of a New Orleans Music Legend (Princeton University Press) tells his story masterfully. In one account he describes an unfortunate piano that he had to play in Panama: "The audience appears to be charmed, while I am playing on a cottage piano that I suspect was the product of an illicit union between a jew's-harp and a large kettle."
In 1855 Gottschalk wrote his famous piece “The Banjo”. Here are clips of Boston-based pianist Michael Lewin playing it, as well as the Mazurka “Souvenir de Lima”.
Gottschalk: The Banjo (excerpt)
Gottschalk: Souvenir de Lima (excerpt)
(image courtesy of Museum of Fine Arts)
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