Gottschalk was the eldest son of a Jewish-English New Orleans real estate speculator and his French-descended bride. Gottschalk may have heard the drums at Place Congo in New Orleans, but his exposure to Creole melody likely came through his own household; his mother had grown up in Haiti and fled to Louisiana after that island's slave uprising. Piano study was undertaken with Narcisse Lettellier, and at age 11, Gottschalk was sent to Paris. Denied entrance to the Conservatoire, he continued with Charles Hallé and Camille Stamaty, adding composition with Pierre Maleden. His Paris debut at the Salle Pleyel in 1845 earned praise from Chopin. By the end of the 1840s, Gottschalk's first works, such as Bamboula, appeared. These syncopated pieces based on popular Creole melodies rapidly gained popularity worldwide. Gottschalk left Paris in 1852 to join his father in New York, only to encounter stiff competition from touring foreign artists. With his father's death in late 1853, Gottschalk inherited support of his mother and six siblings. In 1855, he signed a contract with publisher William Hall to issue several pieces, including The Banjo and The Last Hope. The Last Hope is a sad and sweetly melancholy piece, and it proved hugely popular. Gottschalk found himself obliged to repeat it at every concert, and wrote "even my paternal love for The Last Hope has succumbed under the terrible necessity of meeting it at every step." With an appearance at Dodsworth Hall in December 1855, Gottschalk finally found his audience. For the first time he was solvent, and at his mother's death in 1857 Gottschalk was released from his familial obligations. He embarked on a tour of the Caribbean and didn't return for five years. When this ended, America was in the midst of Civil War. Gottschalk supported the north, touring Union states until 1864. Gottschalk wearied of the horrors surrounding him, becoming an avid proponent of education, playing benefit concerts for public schools and libraries. During a tour to California in 1865, Gottschalk entered into an involvement with a young woman attending a seminary school in Oakland, and the press excoriated him. He escaped on a steamer bound for Panama City. Instead of returning to New York, he pressed on to Peru, Chile, Uruguay, and Argentina, staying one step ahead of revolutions, rioting, and cholera epidemics, but he began to break down under the strain. Gottschalk contracted malaria in Brazil in August 1869; still recovering, he was hit in the abdomen by a sandbag thrown by a student in São Paolo. In a concert at Rio de Janeiro on November 25, Gottschalk collapsed at the keyboard. He had appendicitis, which led to peritonitis. On December 18, 1869, Gottschalk died at the age of 40.
The impact of Gottschalk's music on the later development of ragtime might seem obvious, yet there is no proven link from him to the syncopated popular music he anticipated in works like Bamboula. The music of Scott Joplin and Jelly Roll Morton show traces of Gottschalk's melodic shape and rhythmic pulse, and the New Orleans-born Morton likewise studied under Lettellier. Nickelodeon pianists disserviced Gottschalk by loving him too well; pieces like The Dying Poet and Morte!! turned many a dramatic corner in silent movie houses, and the public began to identify these themes as cliché. By the 1940s, Gottschalk was condemned as hopelessly old-fashioned, and it would take decades of work by scholars to improve his critical fortunes. In his best music, Gottschalk was an American original; masterpieces like Souvenir de Porto Rico, Union, and O ma charmant, épargnez-moi! transcend time through their emotional power, technical mastery, audacity, wit, and charm.