Music for the Circumstances

Photo of Louis Moreau Gottschalk

Having heard the news of Abraham Lincoln’s death, Louis Moreau Gottschalk and some of his fellow passengers en route to San Francisco came to terms with the loss. He wrote in his journal on April 24, 1865:

We are to have a meeting on board to give official expression to the sentiments of grief, which, with merely two or three exceptions, are felt by all the passengers. I have said with merely one or two exceptions, because a lady whose opinions are Secessionist, has pushed her forgetfulness of the respect due to humanity so far as to qualify the assassination of Lincoln as a judgment from God; and one or two other female parrots (a species of female dolls, who are dying for sorrow in not having put on their last new dress), who are exclaiming, with philosophic profundity, that “Lincoln would have had to die sooner or later!”

Where now are those frivolous judgments on the man whom we are weeping for today? His ugliness, his awkwardness, his jokes, with which we reproached him: all have disappeared in presence of the majesty of death. His greatness, his honesty, the purity of that great heart which beats no longer, rise up today and in their resplendent radiance transfigure him who we called the “common rail splitter.”

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O Eternal Power of the true and beautiful! 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.

After the meeting, the Italian singers who are on board sing the Hymn of the Republic, which I accompany on the piano. Miss Adelaide Phillips sings with electric feeling the patriotic song “The Star Spangled Banner.” I play my piece, Union. The enthusiasm aroused is without doubt less owing to our music than to the actual circumstances.