Pianist, composer, activist, polyglot, orator, politician, statesman, humanitarian, businessman, patron of art and architecture, winegrower, film actor, icon: Ignacy Jan Paderewski (1860-1941) led a remarkable life.
He exemplifies the pinnacle of what a man of humble origins yet extraordinary talent, relentless work ethic, and a great gift for self-promotion could achieve in his time. He was, by turns, the epitome of the 19th-century Romantic artist and an astute 20th century self-made man, tirelessly crossing the globe in pursuit of fame, money, adulation, and powerful allies, and channelling it all into causes he cared about – Polish independence, music, and philanthropy.
Paderewski came from a family of impoverished landless gentry. His father Jan was an administrator of large landed estates; his mother Poliksena Nowicka was the daughter of an exiled Polish dissident. Ignacy Jan was born on the 6th of November 1860 in the village of Kuryłówka, in the Podolia region of the Russian Empire (today in Ukraine). His mother never recovered from childbirth and died a few months later. When Ignacy was 3, tragedy struck his family again, as his father was arrested and imprisoned for his role in the January Uprising of Polish patriots against the Tsarist regime. The young Paderewski, effectively an orphan, was adopted by his aunt. An exceptionally bright child with a keen interest in music, Ignacy was at first tutored at home, but at the age of 12 he was accepted into the Warsaw Conservatory – Chopin’s alma mater – a school whose piano faculty he joined only 6 years later in 1878. Perhaps to compensate for his own traumatic childhood, Paderewski settled into family life early; he married another student of the conservatory, Antonina Korsakówna, and had a child by the time he turned 21. Tragically, his wife, like his mother before, died from complications after childbirth and his son was born severely disabled.
This shattering of his own family turned Paderewski’s focus onto his music. After placing the infant in the care of friends, he set out to Berlin to master his composition skills. However, it wasn’t until a chance meeting in Krakow with legendary Polish actress Helena Modrzejewska, who herself enjoyed a dazzling and hugely profitable American career in the 1880s, that his trajectory as a virtuoso pianist began. It seems that Modrzejewska, a woman of reportedly magnetic presence and extraordinary abilities, recognised her male counterpart in Paderewski. Modrzejewska organised a fundraiser to send Ignacy to Vienna to study with the leading piano pedagogue of the time, Theodor Leschetitzky. At 24, Paderewski was late in trying to correct deficiencies in his technique but his dedication paid off and 3 years later, in 1897, he made his Vienna debut. From the moment he stepped onto a stage, his career took off.
Paderewski’s piano playing epitomised and refined a late Romantic style of dramatic shifts of colour, irregular tempo (rubato), heavy pedalling, and lyrical, ‘singing’ melodic lines. He became the premier interpreter of the Romantics Chopin and Liszt, but many musicians and critics also praised his renditions of Bach and Beethoven. The importance of Paderewski’s stage presence cannot be overstated. He was tall and lean, had long arms and large exquisitely shaped hands. He was also striking – with a shock of red curly hair, which he wore long and untamed, light blue hooded eyes, and perfectly formed masculine features – the young Paderewski had the looks of a matinee idol. His confident yet Romantic charisma can be easily seen in his early publicity shots. In one of the iconic photos of Paderewski, the 20-something stands slightly turned, his right shoulder in the forefront, his arms crossed. He looks directly into the camera, the gaze serious yet somehow also melancholy, at odds with his proud posture. What’s remarkable about the picture is how utterly modern the young man looks; if it weren’t for the old-fashioned dress coat and wide cravat, he could be a 21st--century star. An air of vitality, self-assurance, and studied seriousness emanates from the image but it is the youthful softness and hint of sorrow that makes the whole fascinating. His incredible looks coupled with an assured and ‘aristocratic’ stage manner and powerful piano technique proved an irresistible blend of the fleshly and the refined. It’s no wonder then that women became some of his most ardent fans, a fact that ‘serious’ critics and cartoonists alike picked up upon with malicious glee.
Nevertheless, after his debut in Paris’ Salle Erard in 1888 and a shaky start in London in 1890 – where after his first concert in St. James’ Hall the particularly savage English critics referred to him as ‘The Blacksmith of the Piano’ for his powerful manner of striking the keys – Paderewski conquered the public touring the whole of England, and shortly critical acclaim followed. Still, it wasn’t until he set his sights on America that the phenomenon of ‘Paddymania’ began in earnest. America of the Gilded Age was the perfect scene for Paderewski’s ambitions. The enormous fortunes made during this period of explosive industrial growth created a new aristocracy in the big American cities, an elite eager to fund colleges, art collections, museums, libraries, concert halls, opera houses, and other cultural institutions to equal and surpass those of the old continent. The fortunes of families such as the Rockefellers, Fricks, Mellons, Carnegies, Morgans, Stanfords, Guggenheims, Vanderbilts, and others gave new lifeblood to cultural activity of every kind and artists and performers of the highest quality could hope to make their own fortunes in America.
Paderewski’s first tour of the US in 1891 was an unadulterated success and he became a regular performer in America, crossing the continent over 30 times in his 50-year performing career. He travelled in his own Pullman carriage with several instruments since he practised and composed during train rides over long distances, but also because he understood that an aura of extravagance and grandeur attracted the American public. Wherever he arrived, his train was welcomed by official delegations and crowds of adoring fans, who then escorted him to the concert hall. It helped that Paderewski was exceedingly generous with his public; his encores went on for hours, he performed at the Chicago World Fair of 1893 for free, and he often took part in local charity events. Typically the artist performed on a gruelling schedule; during one American tour he gave 60 concerts in 90 days. In 1902, during another American concert tour, his opera Manru premiered at the Metropolitan Opera house while he appeared at the Carnegie Hall few block south, in effect competing against himself (though both venues were filled beyond capacity). America became the most important locus of his public, professional, political, and philanthropic activities, due to her own rising wealth, power and influence, and above all the unparalleled opportunity of admittance among the elites who took his political and philanthropic ideas seriously. Buoyed by his American success, Paderewski toured tirelessly around the world visiting Australia, Africa, and South America. He pioneered the format of the solo recital as most public concerts at the time featured multiple artists in the interest of variety; he was the first to give a solo performance at the new 3,000-seat Carnegie Hall.
Ever since his studies in Berlin, Paderewski took composition seriously and always included his own music in his performing repertoire. He turned to Classical forms: sonatas, variations, symphonies, concertos, and Romantic ones: Fantasias, Polonaises and other Polish dances, Lieder (literary Songs), and piano miniatures in a neo-Romantic style. His biggest influence was Chopin, but in his use of orchestral colour there are echoes of Debussy and French music in general. Paderewski also wrote an opera, Manru, which to date has been the only opera by a Polish composer ever performed in the Metropolitan Opera in its 135-year history. A ‘lyric drama,’ Manru is an ambitious work formally inspired by Wagner’s music dramas; it lacks an overture and closed-form arias, rather employing Wagner’s device of leitmotifs to represent characters and ideas. The story centres on a doomed love triangle, social inequality and racial prejudice (Manru is a Gypsy) and is set in the Tatra Mountains. In addition to the Met, Manru was staged in Dresden (in a private royal viewing), Lviv (its official premiere in 1901), Prague, Cologne, Zurich, Warsaw, Philadelphia, Boston, Chicago, Pittsburgh and Baltimore, Moscow, and Kiev.
Paderewski’s compositions were quite popular during his lifetime and for a time entered the orchestral repertoire, in particular his Fantaisie polonaise sur des thèmes originaux (Polish Fantasy on original themes) for piano and orchestra, Piano Concerto in A minor, and Polonie (Poland) Symphony in B minor. His piano miniatures became especially popular; the Minuet in G major, Op. 14 No. 1 written in the style of Mozart became one of the most recognised piano tunes of all time. And even though his relentless touring schedule and his increasingly more valuable and urgent political and charitable engagements imposed on his composition, Paderewski left a legacy of over 70 orchestral, instrumental, and vocal works.
Paderewski’s background meant that he grew up with the ethos of intense love for his homeland and a sense of duty to his compatriots. During his lifetime the partition of Polish territories among its neighbours, Russia, Prussia, and the Hapsburg Empire (or Austria-Hungary), lasting since the late 18th century, was changing due to the internal troubles of the respective empires as well as the squabbles between them. The seeming inevitability of armed conflict pitting the occupiers against one another gave renewed hope to dreams of Poland’s independence and political diplomatic efforts coupled with public demonstrations and civic disobedience provided needed pressure to keep the issue present in Europe and America’s minds.
Paderewski came to public politics through the philanthropic route. By 1910, the artist was an extremely wealthy man and generously donated to numerous causes and charities, especially for Polish orphans and victims of reprisals, but also for scholarships for young musicians, endowed music posts, and unemployment stipends, support for veterans, rehabilitation clinics and maternity wards, and many others. He also sponsored the building of monuments, among them the Washington Arch in New York in 1892. For the 500th anniversary of a historic victory of the Polish king Jagiełło over the Teutonic Order (the precursor of Prussia), Paderewski sponsored the construction of a statue of the king in Krakow, Poland’s medieval capital. Unveiling the monument became the occasion for a great patriotic demonstration. Paderewski spoke to the gathered masses and proved to be as adept at capturing their hearts and minds with his oratory for a political cause as he was with his music. He was a great speechmaker with a passionate delivery and no recourse to notes. The fact that he was an artist and a philanthropist and not a member of any of the Polish political factions fighting for influence over the movement was one of his greatest assets; he rose above the quarrels, he could legitimately appeal to higher ideals of unity, sacrifice, charity, and work for common goals. His public role as Poland’s champion began in earnest.
The outbreak of World War I – one of the greatest tragedies to befall the European Continent – ironically, provided the best opportunity for pressing the cause of independent Poland on the world stage. Paderewski, a resident of California at the time, became the American representative of the Polish National Committee in Paris, the political body allied with the Entente nations preparing Poland’s liberation. He agitated among immigrants to join the Polish armed forces in France, he pressed elbows with all the dignitaries and influential men whose salons he could enter, he spoke to Americans directly in public speeches and on the radio appealing to them to remember the fate of his nation. He kept such a demanding schedule of public appearances, fundraisers and meetings that he stopped touring altogether for a few years, dedicating himself to diplomatic activity exclusively. On the eve of U.S. entry into the war, in January 1917, President Woodrow Wilson’s advisor, Colonel House, turned to Paderewski to prepare a memorandum on the Polish issue. Two weeks later, Wilson spoke before congress and issued a challenge to the status quo, ‘I take it for granted,’ he said, ‘that statesmen everywhere are agreed that there should be a united, independent, autonomous Poland.’ The establishment of ‘New Poland’ became one of Wilson’s famous ‘Fourteen Points’ – the principles of the peace negotiations to end World War I.
Paderewski sailed for Europe in November 1918. Events on the ground developed quickly. Much of Polish territory was already under the control of the Polish military; the nascent Polish state was led by military commander Józef Piłsudski. Paderewski’s entry into Poznań – then still occupied by German forces – was met with jubilation and spurred an armed uprising, which successfully liberated the province of Wielkopolska from German control. All political factions agreed that Poland should send a delegate to the Versailles Peace Conference who could legitimately represent Poland’s interests and all of her people. Paderewski, the most recognizable champion of the cause and a non-partisan, was chosen to head the delegation. He was thus a signatory to the Treaty of Versailles. During the first 10 months of the functioning of Paderewski’s government, numerous significant events took place: democratic parliamentary elections, ratification of the Versailles Treaty, passage of the treaty on the protection of ethnic minorities in the new state, establishment of a public education system; his government had to deal with border disputes, unemployment, ethnic and social strife, the outbreak of epidemics and it averted looming famine after the devastation of the war. In November 1919, Paderewski resigned his post as prime minister, but continued to represent Poland abroad at international conferences and at the League of Nations. Thanks to his diplomatic skills – he was the only delegate who was not assigned a translator as he was fluent in 7 languages – and great personal esteem, Poland was able to negotiate thorny issues with her neighbours Ukraine and Germany and gain international respect in the process.
In 1921, Paderewski resigned all of his official posts and retired to his villa Riond-Bosson in Morges, Switzerland. He returned to the piano, practising several hours a day and planning an international concert tour. He began touring again in 1923, enjoying a warm reception in his beloved America and earning much needed income. His philanthropic activities continued unabated, for instance, he donated $28,600, the largest single contribution, to the cause of disabled American veterans. At the age of 76, Paderewski played himself in the British-produced motion picture Moonlight Sonata. Something of his legendary presence and distinctive style of piano playing can be glimpsed in the film, especially in his interpretation of Chopin’s Polonaise Op.53 with a distinctly slower tempo than modern interpretations employ, and powerful key strikes characteristic of the Leschetitzky method.
In his private life, the composer was happily remarried to Helena Paderewski, who for two decades took care of his disabled son Alfred, and who became a philanthropist in her own right, heading the first Polish Red Cross in 1919. Helena died in 1934 just as the rise of fascism in Europe and Nazism in Germany brought Paderewski back into the political arena. His Swiss home became a hotbed of political thought and discussion among Polish politicians who found themselves in exile, chief among them Władyslaw Sikorski. When German and Soviet aggression obliterated the Polish state yet again in 1939, Paderewski offered to help in any way he could. He accepted Sikorski’s offer to serve on the National Council, part of the Polish government-in-exile (first in France then in England). He turned to America for help as well. He spoke to the American people directly over the radio, the most popular media at the time; the broadcast was carried by over a hundred radio stations in the United States and Canada. In late 1940 he crossed the Atlantic again to advocate in person for the cause of aiding Europe and defeating Nazism. In 1941, he witnessed a touching tribute to his artistry and humanitarianism as US cities celebrated the 50th anniversary of his first American tour by putting on a Paderewski Week with over 6,000 concerts in his honour. In late June 1941 he was taken ill in New York City and died on the 29th. Paderewski’s funeral in St. Patrick’s Cathedral was attended by a capacity crowd of 4,500 with 35,000 outside the church. President Roosevelt issued a special decree allowing Paderewski’s body to be laid to rest (not buried) at the Arlington National Cemetery. The artist’s wish was to be buried in free Poland when it again became possible. This wish was granted in 1992 when his remains were transferred to Poland and his ashes placed in a crypt in St. John’s Cathedral in Warsaw.
Created by Eva Sobolevski, December 2016
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