Would you care to join me in New Orleans for some opera this evening? I'm a little concerned that our sense of American music from the Civil War era might be influenced by the sountracks of Cold Mountain or Deliverance.
Here's a picture of the opera house at Bourbon and Tolouse as it appeared from 1859 to 1919. It's not a trivial edifice and when it was erected, opera was already into its third generation of listeners in this city:
"The first opera to be performed in the city was Gretry’s Sylvain in 1796, and by the early 19th century we had become an outpost of the Paris Opera. ... the newest French operas continually poured into New Orleans as the public here was eager to drink them up. Works by Mehul, Isouard, Dalayrac, Boieldieu and Cherubini were prominent during the first decade of New Orleans opera, followed a few years later by operas by Auber, Adam, Meyerbeer, and Halevy. An occasional Italian joined their ranks, such as Paisiello and later Rossini, Donizetti, and Bellini. These were the daily fare of the opera houses that flourished in New Orleans not only at the beginning of the century but throughout the 19th century. The opera season ran from the beginning of November to the end of April, and for many years there were few nights during the season when an opera could not be heard."
Opera houses - note the plural.
Now New Orleans was the largest city in the South and one in which French was widely spoken or understood. But the popularity of opera was widespread. This march dedicated to Lincoln used the music of Donizetti.
The best testimony to the popularity of the form was that as Civil War veterans traveled West, they opened opera houses in their slapped together mining towns and named them after Civil War generals ... like Sheridan and McPherson.
Going beyond opera: today Berlioz, Bizet, Franck, and Offenbach are but marginal to the playlists of the major market classical music stations, but the Civil War soldier had ample opportunity to encounter music by any of them before answering the call to arms.
Chopin is another case. Aside from many performances of his work in public private play in salons was fueled by 22 separate pulications of his sheet music in the U.S. between 1839 and 1855.
But we are neglecting New Orleans. There is a great window into the musical tableau presented by the city before the war and that is the life of Louis Moreau Gottschalk - of the Crescent City. "His debut concert was seen by Chopin, who shook his hand and may have told him, 'I predict you will become the king of pianists.'" Note also that
Victor Hugo pronounced him not only a great pianist, but an "eloquent orator who can enrapture and move audiences." Parisians gathered by the hundreds outside his home just to hear him practice and rushed to crown him with celebrity.
Gottschalk was a Unionist and active during the war. He played widely and often: "at one point in 1862, [his schedule] included 85 concerts (all at different locations) in just four and a half months." (Lesson on booking: "New Jersey is the poorest place in the world to give concerts, except Central Africa...”)
There is a Gottschalk revival underway in our day. But we have a way to go before we reach the level of culture of Gottschalk, his audience, or the music-loving public of the Civil War era.
Except, perhaps, in New Jersey, where it may still be status quo ante bellum.