Child Prodigies

In the 1840s it wasn’t unusual for New Orleans musicians to perform in benefit concerts for themselves. What was odd about the April 20, 1841 event at the St. Louis Ballroom was that the pianist was all of 11: and had been performing in public since he was 10.

The young pianist Louis Moreau Gottschalk was playing that evening to help earn his way to France to study music. He had performed the year before at the St. Charles Hotel, and so was a veteran of the stage before he embarked for Europe.

Gottschalk was a hit as a performer in Paris, and he was able to perfect his technique with good instruction. But, it was as a composer that he made his mark on music while still in his teens.

As the Daily Picayune explained on May 10, 1849, “this young pianist … has acquired considerable fame in Paris, not only as an instrumentalist, but as a composer.” One of the professors at the conservatory declared “his intention to introduce… Gottschalk’s compositions into his classes as regular studies for his most advanced pupils.”

Using folk tunes (some learned from household members who had emigrated here from Haiti), Gottschalk’s compositions would provide a fresh musical viewpoint that won him acclaim and influenced other composers. A master showman, he toured extensively and was known for working with large ensembles in showy performances. He would die before his 40th birthday, after a concert in Brazil.

Child Prodigies

The Historic New Orleans Collection, acquisition made possible by the Boyd Cruise Fund courtesy of the historic new orleans collection

Paul Morphy, chess player, exhibited his special skills at a young age.

Another creative Orleanian, Paul Morphy also came to his talent early. He was born in 1837 at 1131 Chartres street, today the Beauregard-Keyes House. He grew up at 417 Royal street, today Brennan’s Restaurant.

According to legend, he had shown no interest in chess until, at the age of 10, his father (an attorney) and his uncle (a judge), were playing a game while he watched. The match came to a stalemate and the adults were about to sweep up when the boy announced: “Uncle, you should have won,” and proceeded to demonstrate how. The amazed adults realized he was correct.

Paul Morphy seemed to be able to envision games during and after play, and to know instinctively how to defeat opponents. He played occasionally and was a serious opponent, but did not enter competitions until he had graduated from Spring Hill College in Mobile, and read for the law, studying with noted local attorneys.

In 1856, Morphy’s father died suddenly, and rather than immediately begin a law practice, Morphy began playing competitive chess. In 1857, age 20, he entered a Chess Congress in New York, and won first prize. Morphy traveled to England and France, playing noted opponents, and even played games against multiple opponents while blindfolded.

After his European sojourn, Morphy returned home, gave up chess competitions and set up a law office. Meanwhile, the approach of the Civil War meant that the Morphy family would be leaving New Orleans, to travel while the conflict raged.

After the war ended and Paul Morphy was home again, his demeanor changed. Irrational fears, anxiety, and mental torment overcame the brilliant gamesman. He would die of apoplexy (a stroke) in 1884 at the age of 46.

Why did he give up competitive chess? Biographer Ernest Jones would discuss “The Problem of Paul Morphy” in the International Journal of Psycho-Analysis in 1931, making much of the necessary chess end-move of checkmating the king/father figure, but suggesting that Morphy’s brief foray into the competitive chess world essentially took away the meaning the game had for him.

Neither Gottschalk nor Morphy reached old age, but they both left legacies – Gottschalk’s music is still played and Morphy’s chess games are still studied.


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