Louis Moreau Gottschalk embarked upon a chaotic tour of the eastern United States in the spring and early summer of 1853. Exhausted, with no ground gained, Gottschalk retreated to Saratoga Springs in upstate New York. During the summer Gottschalk relaxed and undertook numerous compositions, among them the first version of The Banjo. After taking the piece through a major overhaul. Gottschalk submitted it for publication in 1854 as his Opus 15. First reaction to The Banjo was split, with the public taking to the piece immediately while Gottschalk's colleagues in the concert field felt at pains to make excuses for what they thought surely must be a momentary lapse of taste and reason on the composer's part.
Gottschalk was intimately familiar with banjo technique. In his native New Orleans, banjo playing by street musicians was a familiar sight. On one occasion, under his pseudonym "Seven Octaves," Gottschalk published a review of a concert performance by banjoist George Swaine Buckley in the New York Morning Times. Banjoists quickly recognized that Gottschalk's piano piece lay within the technical resources of their instrument with only minor adaptation, and incorporated it into their repertoires. Banjo instruction books of the nineteenth century sometimes credit Gottschalk for helping to establish the banjo as a "real" musical instrument.
Beginning with a variant of the main melody stated in octaves, the first strain of The Banjo takes the form of a long introduction made up of several periods, played in the middle range of the piano. The main melody is stated in the treble, and hardly gets off the ground before it is answered by a fiendishly tough passage in sixteenths with the emphasis always on the downbeat, sometimes held there by a discreetly inserted tie. Thundering octaves take us back to the beginning of the introduction, and the whole thing is heard again. Gottschalk closes with a brilliant pair of variations on a melody strongly resembling that of Stephen Foster's Camptown Races. (The piece also contains echoes of the spiritual "Roll, Jordan, Roll.") In these last passages Gottschalk successfully suggests the "frailing" style of banjo playing on the keyboard.
After Gottschalk's death in 1869, the composer's original version of The Banjo was published as his Op. 82 under the erroneous title of The Banjo No. 2. In its own time, the Op. 15 version was greatly popular, but no match for Gottschalk's omnipresent masterpiece of Victorian sentiment, The Last Hope. One and a half centuries later, The Last Hope is but a faded memory from a past era, and The Banjo stands as Louis Moreau Gottschalk's most famous and enduring composition, in addition to a favorite encore of piano virtuosi the world around.