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Ignacy Paderewski and his Piano Concerto

Ignacy Jan Paderewski (November 18, 1860–June 29,1941) was a Polish pianist and composer, and also a politician, and spokesman for Polish independence, born to a well-off, cultivated family in the village of Kurilovka (Kurilivka), Litin uyezd in the Podolia Governorate, then part of the Russian Empire. The village today is part of the Khmilnyk raion of Vinnytsia Oblast, Ukraine. His father, Jan Paderewski, was an administrator of large estates. His mother, Poliksena (née Nowicka), died several months after Paderewski was born, and he was brought up by distant relatives. From his early childhood, Paderewski was interested in music while living at the private estate near Zhytomyr where he moved with his father. However soon after his father’s arrest in connection with the January Uprising in 1863, he was adopted by his aunt. After being released, Paderewski’s father married again and moved to the town of Sudylkov near Shepetovka.

Initially Paderewski took piano lessons with a private tutor from an early age. At the age of twelve, in 1872, he went to Warsaw and was admitted to the Warsaw Conservatorium to study piano, harmony, and counterpoint. After graduating in 1878, he was asked to become a tutor of piano classes at his alma mater, which he accepted. In 1880 Paderewski married one of his pupils named Antonina Korsakówna, and soon afterwards, their first child was born. The following year, they discovered that the son was handicapped; soon afterward, Antonina died. Paderewski decided to devote himself to music, and in 1881 he went to Berlin to study music composition with Friedrich Kiel and Heinrich Urban between 1881 and 1883 while moving in the social orbit of the greatest musicians of the day, including a young Richard Strauss and the lionized Anton Rubinstein. In 1884 he moved to Vienna, where he was a pupil of the great Polish pianist and pedagogue Theodor Leschetizky. During this period he also taught at the Strasbourg Conservatory. It was in Vienna that he made his musical debut in 1887. His piano concerto was composed in 1888. He soon gained great popularity and his subsequent appearances in Paris in 1889, and in London in 1890 were major successes. His brilliant playing created a furor which reached to almost extravagant lengths of admiration. His triumphs were repeated in the United States in 1891. His name at once became synonymous with the highest level of piano virtuosity.

In 1896, Paderewski donated $10,000 to establish a trust fund to encourage American-born composers. The fund underwrote a triennial competition that began in 1901 called the “Paderewski Prize”. Paderewski also launched a similar contest in Leipzig in 1898. In 1898 he settled at Riond Bosson near Morges in Switzerland, and the following year he married Helena Gorska, Baroness von Rosen. He was also a substantial composer, including many pieces for piano. He became world famous for the Minuet in G, Op. 14/1, part of a set of six pieces that are otherwise forgotten. In 1901 his sole opera Manru received its world premiere at Dresden, then it had its American premiere in 1902 at the Metropolitan Opera. To this day it remains the only Polish opera by a Polish composer ever performed there. Paderewski, his second wife, entourage, parrot and Erard piano gave concerts in Australia and New Zealand in 1904, in collaboration with Polish-French composer, Henri Kowalski. In 1909 came the premiere of his Symphony in B minor “Polonia”, a massive work lasting 75 minutes, given at Boston, and in that same year he became director of the Warsaw Conservatory. It would be his last composition, apart from a hymn for male chorus written in 1917. He was also active in pursuing various philanthropic causes. In 1910 he funded the erection of the Battle of Grunwald Monument in the city of Kraków, to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the the victory of the Poles over the Teutonic Order.

In 1913, Paderewski settled in the United States. On the eve of World War I, and at the height of his fame, Paderewski bought a 2,000-acre property, Rancho San Ignacio, near Paso Robles, in San Luis Obispo County, on the central coast of California. A decade later he planted Zinfandel vines on the California property. He was extremely popular internationally, to such an extent that the music hall duo “The Two Bobs” had a hit song in 1916, in music halls across Britain, with the song “When Paderewski plays”. He was a favorite of concert audiences across the globe; women especially admired his performances. During World War I, Paderewski became an active member of the Polish National Committee in Paris, which was soon accepted by the Entente as the representative of the forces trying to create the state of Poland. He became a spokesman of that organization, and soon also formed other social and political organizations, among them the Polish Relief Fund in London. It was then that he met the English composer Edward Elgar, who used a theme from Paderewski’s Fantasie Polonaise in his work Polonia written for the 1916Polish Relief Fund concert in London, the title no doubt recognizing Paderewski’s Symphony in B minor .

In April 1918, Paderewski met in New York City with leaders of the American Jewish Committee in an unsuccessful attempt to broker a deal whereby organized Jewish groups would support Polish territorial ambitions in exchange for support for equal rights. However, it soon became clear that no plan would satisfy both Jewish leaders and Roman Dmowski, head of the Polish National Committee, who was strongly anti-semitic. Paderewski also played an important role in meeting with President Woodrow Wilson and others in obtaining the explicit inclusion of independent Poland as point 13 in Wilson’s peace terms, the Fourteen Points. At the end of the war, with the fate of the city of Poznań and the whole region of Greater Poland (Wielkopolska) still undecided, Paderewski visited Poznań. With his public speech on December 27,1918, the Polish inhabitants of Poznań began a military uprising against Germany, called the Greater Poland Uprising. He worked hard to get Dmowski and Józef Piłsudski to collaborate, but Piłsudski won out.

In 1919, in the newly independent Poland, Paderewski was appointed by the provisional president Piłsudski as the Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs (January 1919 – December 1919). He and Dmowski represented Poland at the Paris Peace Conference. He signed the Treaty of Versailles, which restored the territories of Greater Poland and Pomerania around the City of Gdańsk to Poland. Although this fell short of what the Polish delegates had demanded, these territories provided the core of the restored Polish state. After being abandoned by many of his political supporters, Paderewski resigned as foreign minister on December 4, 1919, and took on the role of Polish Ambassador to the League of Nations. In 1922 he retired from politics and returned to his musical life. He never revisited his native country. His first concert after a long break, held at Carnegie Hall, was a significant success. He also filled Madison Square Garden’s 20,000 seats and toured the United States in a private railway car.

Soon Paderewski returned to Morges in Switzerland. After Piłsudski’s coup d’état in 1926, Paderewski became an active member of the opposition to Sanacja rule. In 1936 a coalition of members of the opposition was signed in his mansion; it was nicknamed the Front Morges after the name of the village. By 1936, two years after the death of his wife, Paderewski consented to appear in a film presenting his talent and art on the screen. This proposal had come at a time when Paderewski did not wish to appear in public. However, the film project did proceed, and the selected film script was an opportunity to feature Paderewski. The film Moonlight Sonata was filmed throughout 1936. In November 1937 Paderewski agreed to take on one last pupil for piano. This musician was Witold Małcużyński, who had won second place at the International Chopin Piano Competition.

After the Polish Defensive War of 1939 Paderewski returned to public life. In 1940 he became the head of the Polish National Council, a Polish parliament in exile in Paris formed with Gen. Władysław Sikorski as prime minister. After the French capitulation in 1940, he went to the United States. The eighty-year-old artist also restarted his Polish Relief Fund and gave several concerts, most notably in the United States, to gather money for it. However, his mind was not what it had once been. Scheduled again to play Madison Square Garden, he refused to appear, insisting that he had already played the concert, presumably remembering the concert he had played in the 1920s. During one such tour in 1941, Paderewski was taken ill on June 27. Nothing was discussed with his personal secretary or entourage. But at the initiative of Sylwin Strakacz, physicians were called in for consultation and diagnosed pneumonia. Despite improving health and signs of recovery Paderewski died in New York City, NY, on June 29, 1941, aged 80. He was given a hero’s burial in Arlington National Cemetery, in Arlington Virginia, near Washington DC. In 1992, his body was brought to Warsaw and placed in St. John’s Archcathedral.

The following works by Ignacy Paderewski are contained in my collection:

Fantasie Polonaise su des themes originaux, op. 19 (1893).
Piano Concerto in am, op. 17 (1888).

—material selected, adapted, and edited from several different sources


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