Ludovic Lamothe, the ‘Black Chopin’ of Haiti, composed many piano pieces, including Haitian meringues, and he played a key role in the development of Haiti’s musical culture. Lamothe also gave renowned musical recitals and performances of classical music.
Born in 1882 in Port-au-Prince, Lamothe came from a prominent literary and musical family. His father and grandfather were both musicians. His grandfather, Joseph Lamothe, was known as an excellent instrumentalist. Lamothe’s mother, Virginie Sampeur, was a famous poet who was once married to the celebrated Haitian poet Oswald Durand. She wrote, ‘The Abandoned Woman’, which features in many Haitian anthologies of poetry. Sampeur also played the piano, and she gave her young son his first piano lessons.
Lamothe studied piano and clarinet at the Institution Saint Louis de Gonzaga in Port-au-Prince. He soon gained a reputation for technical excellence, and his teachers also noted his talent for composing. German merchants in Haiti funded a scholarship to enable the impressive young musician to further his studies in Paris. He went to France in 1910, and he studied at the Paris Conservatory where he was taught by Louis Dieter. Lamothe gave a performance at the Cerole des Annales in Paris.
The musician returned home in 1911. He taught piano privately, and he also held piano recitals at his home. He usually gave the recitals on Sunday afternoons. The recitals appealed to the middle and the upper classes of Haiti, who were interested in culture.
Lamothe often performed works by Chopin, his favourite composer, so he was called ‘Un Chopin Noir’ (A Black Chopin). He gave a performance at the Rex Theatre to commemorate Chopin’s death. One of the works he performed was Chopin’s acclaimed ‘Polonaise in A Flat’.
Lamothe composed only for the piano. His inspirations included European classical music and music that appealed to the lower classes of Haiti, such as Carnival méringues. Méringues are traditional Haitian pieces that combine African and Spanish influences. Michael Largey, the author of Vodou Nation, writes that méringues are a ‘crossover’ genre that appeals to several social groups. Lamathe also wanted to include Haitian Vodou and Creole elements within his compositions.
Lamothe’s most famous classically-influenced music was ‘La Dangereuse’. This was a méringue designed to appeal to the elite
The composer’s most famous classically influenced music was ‘La Dangereuse’. This was a méringue designed to appeal to the elite. A ‘méringue lente’ (slow méringue), ‘La Dangereuse’ was extremely expressive with a lyrical melody, and it became extremely popular with Haitians who appreciated classical music. ‘La Dangereuse’ shows the influence of Lamothe’s beloved Chopin.
Lamothe, a patriotic Haitian, also wrote méringues that appealed to the working-classes of Haiti. These included the Carnival méringue, ‘Nibo’, which won a Port-au-Prince city council competition for the best Carnival méringue in 1934. The composer wrote this in anticipation of the end of the occupation of Haiti by the American army. The piece became an unofficial Liberation Anthem, and the lower classes especially enjoyed its chorus. This was because they enjoyed gesturing and shouting during the repetitive phrases of the music.
Unfortunately, the composer ran into financial troubles in 1944. This was because only two of his musical pieces were published internationally, and he didn’t make enough money from his music in Haiti. In fact, Lamothe usually had his compositions printed at his own expense. He was evicted from the home where he had lived for more than 36 years. The elite of Haiti kindly raised funds for Lamothe amounting to over $4000, so that he could buy a new home. These people included the historian, Jean Fouchard, and the writer, Philippe Thoby-Marcelin. Lamothe eventually became Chief of Music of the Republic of Haiti. He died in 1953.
Many musical critics are disappointed that a collection of Lamothe’s piano music is out of print. However, the sheet music collection, A Vision of Ludovic Lamothe, can be found in libraries. CDs with performances of Lamothe’s music are available. A Vision of Ludovic Lamothe, a 2001 recording, contains performances by Charles P. Phillips. A 1999 CD, Music of the Haitian Masters, contains three works of Lamothe. These are: ‘Scherzo’, ‘Sobo’ and ‘La Dangereuse’. These were all written for the piano, but in this recording are performed by Jean E. Saint-Eloi on MIDI guitar.
Lamothe’s works are now becoming even more famous, and he is increasingly celebrated in Haiti. His compositions are often performed in his home country. One of the musicians who gives regular recitals of Lamothe’s music is Dr. Joshua Russell. According to the article ‘Haitian Music Highlighted at West Suburban Lecture Recital’ by Kathy Micheli, Dr. Russell said before one concert that: ‘It is a real joy to perform these works that represent the beautiful and rich cultural tradition that also exists in Haiti’.
Lamothe was one of the most notable Haitian musicians. His legacy is likely to be remembered and celebrated for a long time in Haiti. Many Haitians hope that other Creole musicians will follow in his footsteps.