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Biography of Ignacy Paderewski

by Jeffrey Wagner
Park Ridge IL

For the Polish Museum of America
September 2009


 Pianist, composer, patriot, humanitarian, and politician, Ignacy Jan Paderewski left a distinctive legacy despite his ordinary, indeed humble, origins.  He had an unusually difficult youth, of which he wrote in his memoirs, “I know as well as most the despair that can beset the human heart.”  Indeed, many traumas beset the young Paderewski. The boy’s mother died a few months after his birth.  When he was three, a gang of Cossacks beat him, and dragged his father off to prison before they boy’s eyes, in reprisal for patriotic activities on behalf of Poland during a short-lived revolution against Russia.  Paderewski married at twenty, was widowed within the year, and left with a sickly baby and little money. 

That the young Paderewski survived not only these challenges, but also the unusual difficulties of establishing a concert career, suggests a man of remarkable determination. It may have been his human qualities as his musical talents that brought him success after success as pianist, statesman, and composer. He never wavered from his goals, established early in life, to bring his gifts as artist and humanitarian to the world.

From the time of his Paris debut in 1889 Paderewski’s presence in concert, and elsewhere, could create a Lisztian degree of hysteria.  His style of playing is nowadays commonly termed “old-fashioned”, yet in the eyes of the adoring audiences of his day the charismatic Pole possessed a rare and precious magic.  Many in the generation of pianists that followed him venerated him. Vladimir Horowitz proudly displayed an autographed picture of Paderewski in his home.  Dame Myra Hess once told of how after hearing Paderewski in London, that she took a train to Manchester just to hear the special golden sound that the Polish master elicited from the piano. Henry T. Finck, a well-known New York critic, wrote, “No other pianist, except perhaps Chopin, has understood the art of pedaling as Paderewski understands it”. 

Paderewski was initially shocked by his own success and worked strenuously through his life to maintain high concert standards. Fatigue and stress overtook him several times, yet he ultimately never relented in his efforts to realize his high artistic and humanitarian ideals. The sums he earned, especially on his tours in the United States in the 1890s, were staggeringly high by standards of the day.  He truly lived like a king.  While touring over the vast distances of the United States, he lived in his own private railway car, lavishly furnished with kitchen, sitting-room, and even an upright piano. Among his many holdings and investments were an estate in Switzerland and a ranch in California.

Paderewski had at success as a composer, and not only for his famed Menuet.  As composer, he attracted the attention of many of his day, including Anton Rubinstein and Camille Saint-Saens.  The famed Russian virtuosa Madame Annette Essipova premiered his Concerto in A Minor, written when Paderewski was twenty-three.  Today several fine recordings of the concerto exist, including those by Earl Wild and the Canadian-Polish pianist, Janina Fialkowska. His opera based on Polish folk tales and songs, Manru, was premiered in Dresden, and in the United States at New York’s Metropolitan Opera.

Though educated in the cultural tradition of Western and Middle Europe, Paderewski the composer generally expressed his Polish roots.  Mazurkas, Obereks, Krakowiaks, and Polonaises abound throughout his works.  His relative, the famed musician,  Wanda Landowska, wrote in the Saturday Review of Literature  “Paderewski’s love for folk music can be understood when one realizes that, born in … Kurylowka, from his earliest childhood he heard the peasants sing and saw them dance … The songs of the Polish Tatra highlanders that he later heard also cast a strong spell on Paderewski”.  

 A major reason for Paderewski’s popularity and success was certainly his materially and spiritually generous nature. His family roots in the old Polish nobility may explain the principle of noblesse oblige according to which he always lived. Money was not to be hoarded, but enjoyed, especially in the service of others.  His extensive touring as pianist was driven not by greed, but rather by a strong need to give of himself and his artistic gifts. In fact, numerous friends and biographers have substantiated that his ego was never much gratified by the adulation he received (indeed, this probably only magnified his insecurity, and caused him to worry excessively about his level of preparation).  He lived in the spirit of giving, and this informed both the artistic and political dimensions of his career. 

Paderewski’s manager once observed that Paderewski never allowed a presenter to lose money on him, always reimbursing them, or forgiving debts, in those rare cases where they could not meet expenses.  Many testified to his spontaneously generous gestures for friends and acquaintances.  Beneficiaries included his father, whom he adored, and for whom he bought a comfortable retirement house in Zhitomir.  During the First World War Paderewski gave much of his fortune to the Allies, and for a free Poland.  Through the years he frequently opened his mansion at “Riond Bosson” in Switzerland and lavished warm hospitality upon a never-ending stream of guests.  

Although the political side of Paderewski emerged most dramatically at the time of World War One, he actually had been a committed and passionate Polish patriot since early childhood.  He came to feel early in life that his destiny was above all to serve Poland’s struggle for freedom. In his memoirs he wrote of his deep feelings for his mother land:   “… my true object – my great object, already at the age of seven – was to be useful to my own country, which was, as you know, partitioned having no existence of her own, and very depressed.  My great hope was to become somebody, and so to help Poland. That was over and above all my artistic aspirations.”

Paderewski’s political “debut” came in 1910 when he raised funds for the creation of a Polish national monument in Grunwald, where Polish forces had defeated German adversaries 500 years before.  As the cataclysm of Word War One overcame Europe, the ever optimistic Paderewski became a major force in the Polish Comite National party and was appointed to be its delegate to the United States, where his prestige and success as performer had won him numerous friends and contacts.

Convinced that Polish independence would result only from an Allied victory, and that an Allied victory would be greatly hastened by the entry of the United States into the war, Paderewski set about to persuade the American people and President Woodrow Wilson to enter the war on the side of the Allies.  At a White House concert in 1916 he met Wilson and his foreign adviser, Colonel Edward House, urging them to put Polish sovereignty on their list of post-War objectives. This Wilson did, in his “Fourteen Points” policy speech of 1918. 

During the war, Paderewski worked tirelessly for Poland’s future, and after the war he represented Poland at the Paris Peace Conference. There, he was in his element, and his wide knowledge of culture, current affairs, literature and history stood him in good stead. He was in fact a successful advocate for Polish independence specifically, and high humanitarian ideals generally.  Colonel House later described the impression Paderewski made, working for the conditions that would allow Poland to survive as a free land: “He came to Paris in the minds of many as an incongruous figure, whose place was on the concert stage, and …left Paris, in the minds of his colleagues, a statesman, an incomparable orator, a linguist, and one who had the history of his Europe better in hand than any of his brilliant associates … He gave to the world an example of patriotism and courage, of which it is always in need.”

Paderewski returned to Poland as its premiere after the conference, and learned that he had no great love for the endless details of administration. Discouraged by that, and by the political factionalism, he resigned in 1919, returned to his home in Switzerland, and eventually resumed his concert career, touring extensively in the 1920s and 30s. When well into his 70s, he even appeared in a movie, Moonlight Sonata, playing himself as actor, and brilliantly performing Chopin, Liszt and his own popular piece, Menuet, at the piano. 

In response to Nazi aggression in Europe, Paderewski journeyed to the United States, where he continued to labor for Polish relief. He died in his suite at the Buckingham Hotel in New York City on June 29, 1941. By special order of resident Franklin Roosevelt, he was buried in the United States at Arlington National Cemetery. Many of his possessions, including the Steinway piano he had in his rooms at the Buckingham, were transferred by Paderewski’s surviving sister, Antonina Paderewski Wilkonska, to Chicago’s Polish Museum of America.  As a result of the fall of the iron curtain, Paderewski’s remains were transferred to Saint John’s Cathedral in Warsaw in1992, though his heart, encased on a bronze sculpture, rests in the national Shrine of Our Lady of Czestochowa near Doylestown, Pennsylvania.