Lincoln’s love of the theater is well known, but not his love of music — from the Marine Band’s regular performances at the White House to the recitals and operas in Washington’s concert halls. He liked getting out among the evening audiences, and a short carriage ride took him and Mary, plus a friend like Charles Sumner or Edwin Stanton, to Willard’s or Grover’s for a few hours of entertainment, musical as often as dramatic.
He didn’t know as much about Beethoven or Verdi as he did about some of Shakespeare’s works, but he evidently enjoyed the listening. Music historian Steven Cornelius counts 19 trips by Lincoln to the opera during the war years.
And Lincoln imagined doing more than just listening to music. Journalist Noah Brooks, who knew him well, recalled in 1865 that “Mr. Lincoln’s love of music was something passionate,” so much so that he once fantasized about writing some bars to accompany his favorite poem, William Knox’s “Oh, why should the spirit of mortal be proud?” Lincoln “said once, when told that the newspapers had credited him with the authorship of the piece, ‘I should not care much for the reputation of having written that, but would be glad if I could compose music as fit to convey the sentiment as the words now do.’”
One of the most heralded performers that Lincoln heard during the war was pianist Louis Moreau Gottschalk, an ardent Union supporter originally from New Orleans. A serious composer as well as a talented stylist, Gottschalk’s work impressed a New York critic in 1862: “he has evoked new effects from the instrument that none others had dreamt of; his touch is perfect, and he can accomplish better than any pianist living that most difficult of all feats, making the piano sing.”
Touring widely in a competitive entertainment market, he drew crowds by offering something for everyone: patriotic airs, classical pieces, sentimental ballads, and his own compositions. He was renowned for his dazzling patriotic hymn of 1862 entitled “Union,” and for his six-minute adaptation of his friend George F. Root’s runaway wartime hit “Battle Cry of Freedom.” (Both of those Gottschalk pieces, and others, are available on YouTube and at www.gottschalk.fr/Oeuvres/Oeuvres.php.)
For his appearance at Willard’s Hall in Washington on March 24, 1864, Gottschalk set aside front-row seats for Abraham and Mary Lincoln, and he brought in a violinist, a tenor, and a soprano for a varied program of Heinrich Ernst, Rossini, Beethoven, Verdi, Paganini, and Ferdinand Gumbert.
Lincoln never let on what he thought of the evening’s fare, including arias from The Barber of Seville and La Traviata, and the Andante from Beethoven’s “Pathétique Sonata.” We can assume that he relished Gottschalk’s encore selection — “Union,” which brought down the house — as well as tenor Theodore Habelmann’s rendition of Gumbert’s “My Father’s Home.” Brooks was insistent on this point: all songs evoking “the rapid flight of time, decay, the recollections of early days, were sure to make a deep impression” on the president.
Lincoln didn’t record his response to Gottschalk, but the pianist recorded his reaction to Lincoln. “Remarkably ugly,” he wrote in his diary. In spite of the president’s looks (and failure to wear dress gloves), Gottschalk thought Lincoln conveyed an “intelligent air.” And his eyes exuded “goodness and mildness.”
That memorable evening spent entertaining Lincoln and other dignitaries (including William Seward) was apparently the last time Gottschalk laid eyes on him. But it was not the last time he played his “Union” for him.
Eleven months later, on April 23, 1865, the performer was headed to San Francisco for a series of concerts. He’d left New York City on April 3, sailing south for Panama on the mail steamer Ariel. Just before departure, the passengers had heard the latest news from Virginia: Petersburg had fallen to Union forces. That was the last North American report they would receive until April 23.
On the 23rd, having already crossed the isthmus by train, they were gliding north along the Mexican coast on a much larger steamer, the Constitution. Among the 400 passengers were Supreme Court Justice Stephen Field, a group of Italian singers, and opera star Adelaide Phillips.
Lincoln had heard her perform in New York City in February 1861 at the first opera he ever attended, Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera. On that occasion Lincoln had arrived late at the Academy of Music and slipped quietly into his seat. As soon as the curtain fell on Act One, people began chanting “Lincoln! Lincoln!,” and as he rose for a bow, Phillips and the other singers serenaded him with “The Star Spangled Banner.”
As the Constitution steamed northward on April 23, a southbound ship, The Golden City, hailed it, and its captain came aboard to deliver some grim news. Lincoln had been murdered more than a week before. Passengers squeezed around a staircase and begged the captain for details. Some refused to believe his story without newspaper proof. Apparently anticipating that reaction, he had brought a newspaper with him. Immediately a passenger was delegated to climb the rigging above the spacious deck and read from the paper in the loudest voice he could muster.
Back on the mainland, Lincoln’s body was lying in state in Independence Hall in Philadelphia, and dozens of composers, including T. M. Brown, were hard at work on original funeral dirges in the martyr’s honor. Gottschalk’s friend George Root completed his “Farewell Father, Friend, and Guardian,” the best known of them all, in time for it to be performed in Chicago when Lincoln’s body lay in state there on May 1.
Aboard ship in the Pacific on April 23, Louis Gottschalk and Adelaide Phillips, along with the rest of the passengers, were just starting to mourn. The faces of crewmembers, Gottschalk noticed, were smeared from the tears they’d been wiping away. Passengers, like Justice Field, sat alone or in groups quietly weeping, their heads in their hands.
The following evening, Field presided over a general meeting to draw up and endorse the requisite resolutions. Gottschalk summed them up: “fidelity to the Government, respect for the memory of the great and good Lincoln, and horror for the execrable act” of the assassin. He remembered having once seen John Wilkes Booth in a play in Cleveland: “beautiful features,” he recalled, but “a sinister expression” and indeed “something deadly in his look.”
With the resolutions approved, Gottschalk moved to the ship’s piano to accompany the Italian singers in a performance of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” Then he played for Adelaide Phillips as she once again sang “The Star Spangled Banner” for Lincoln. To finish the ceremony he performed his signature work, “Union,” as he had at Willard’s when Mr. and Mrs. Lincoln sat only a few yards away.
Gottschalk did one more thing for Lincoln: he admonished himself for having mocked the president’s looks and disparaged his evening dress. “Yesterday his detractors were ridiculing his large hands without gloves, his large feet, his bluntness; today this type we found grotesque appears to us on the threshold of immortality, and we understand by the universality of our grief what future generations will see in him.”