Ignace Jan Paderewski

Ignace Jan Paderewski (1860-1941), Polish pianist, composer, and statesman, was one of the best-known musicians of his time, as well as a very influential statesman who helped create modern Poland after World War I.

Jan Paderewski was born in a rural section of Poland, where his father was an overseer for several large estates. Jan showed an interest in music at an early age and started to compose and to study piano with local teachers. His father sent Jan to Warsaw to enter the conservatory. His progress on the piano was not rapid, and his teacher advised him to study another instrument. He tried the flute, clarinet, bassoon, horn, and finally the trombone, which he played in the conservatory orchestra. The piano remained his chief interest, however.

After graduation Paderewski taught for a few years, then went to Berlin to continue his studies. Once again he was advised that his talent was insufficient to have a career, but undaunted, he went to Vienna to study with Theodor Leschetizky, the most famous teacher of the time. Here too he found little encouragement because the teacher felt that it was too late for the 24-year-old pianist to develop a dependable technique. Paderewski persisted and practiced prodigiously. Finally, his highly successful debut in Paris launched a career that made him for the next 50 years the best-known and best-paid pianist of all time.

Paderewski made his first American tour in 1891 and then returned regularly until the outbreak of World War I. He developed a tremendous following and amassed a fortune estimated at $10 million. His success was due in part to his personal magnetism. He was strikingly handsome, tall, and gracious, crowned with a mane of golden-reddish hair. His audiences felt, it was said, as though they were invited guests to an exclusive soiree. His grand scale of living also made him a glamorous figure. He traveled all over America in his private railway car; besides his piano, his entourage consisted of his piano tuner, secretary, valet, doctor, and chef, as well as his wife, her attendants, and dog. He maintained princely establishments in Switzerland and California, where he entertained continually and lavishly.

Paderewski's repertoire, consisting largely of familiar Beethoven sonatas and compositions by Chopin and Liszt, appealed to unsophisticated audiences as well as musicians. By many standards he was not a great pianist. His technique was limited, and his interpretations were more "poetical" and sentimental than stylistically valid, but this did not matter to his fervent followers.

Early in his career Paderewski wrote a minuet in pseudo-Mozart style. This composition became unbelievably popular. People who did not usually go to concerts went to hear him play it. A spontaneous sigh of recognition and pleasure always swept over the crowd when he started to play. He proved his competence as a composer in several large-scale works. Among these was an opera, Manru, successfully produced at the Metropolitan Opera in New York and also in Europe, as well as a symphony and a piano concerto. In these works his use of themes based on Polish folk music classifies him with the other nationalistic composers of the time.

During World War I Paderewski proved to be a Polish nationalist in a wider sense. Concerned with the plight of Polish victims of the war, he raised large sums of money for them through benefit concerts. He also skillfully united various Polish-American groups to work for the same end. Seeing the possibility of rejoining the parts of Poland divided between Germany, Austria, and Russia and making it a modern democracy, he gave up concertizing to implement this project. He became a friend of President Woodrow Wilson and convinced him of the importance of a strong Poland for the future peace of Europe. President Wilson included the idea in his famous Fourteen Points.

Returning to Poland as soon as the war was over, Paderewski was greeted as a national hero. He was elected president and represented Poland at the Paris Peace Conference, where he successfully convinced the other statesmen that a united Poland was necessary. He attended the signing of the Treaty of Versailles and the opening sessions of the League of Nations. In all, he distinguished himself as a diplomat. He proved to be a masterful orator in French and English, as well as in Polish and German.

His mission accomplished, Paderewski resigned from political activities in 1921 and resumed his concertizing. Everywhere he went he was honored. When he played in Washington, D.C., for instance, he was a houseguest of President Herbert Hoover. When in Rome he always visited the pope, who was a personal friend. He continued to play until 1939, and only his death in New York in 1941 stopped his work for Poland.


Further Reading on Ignace Jan Paderewski

The Paderewski Memoirs (1938) covers only the early years of Paderewski's career. A full study is Charlotte Kellogg, Paderewski (1956). Interesting insights are in Aniela Strakacz, Paderewski as I Knew Him: From the Diary of Aniela Strakacz (1949), covering his life from 1918 to his death. See also the chapter on Paderewski in Harold C. Schonberg, The Great Pianists (1963).

Additional Biography Sources

Drozdowski, Marian Marek, Ignacy Jan Paderewski: a political biography, Warsaw: Interpress, 1981, 1979.

Landau, Rom, Ignace Paderewski, musician and statesman, New York: AMS Press, 1976.

Paderewski, Ignace Jan, The Paderewski memoirs, New York: Da Capo Press, 1980, 1938.

Phillips, Charles Joseph MacConaghy, Paderewski, the story of a modern immortal, New York: Da Capo Press, 1978, c1933.

Zamoyski, Adam, Paderewski, New York: Atheneum, 1982.