John ALLISON: Paderewski and his pact with the English-speaking world

Paderewski and his pact with the English-speaking world

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Editor of Opera and Music Critic on The Daily Telegraph. From 1994-2005 he was a Music Critic on The Times, and from 2005-2014 on The Sunday Telegraph. He has written for leading newspapers around the world, including the New York Times, and is a regular contributor to BBC Music Magazine.


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Among the many famous figures gathered at the Peace Conference in Paris in the first half of 1919, one was a great musician. But politics had by that point compelled him to take something of a sabbatical from his musical activities. Complaining about the distinguished crowd that had descended on the city, Marcel Proust said that ‘The Ritz has become intolerable, in spite of the presence of Paderewski, without Chopin’s Polonaises, alas.’ Ignacy Jan Paderewski (1860-1941) had earlier given up his career as a composer, and the rebirth of an independent Poland — finally achieved in the aftermath of World War I — consumed all his energies, so it was only after serving briefly as the new country’s prime minister and minister of foreign affairs, positions to which he was appointed by the country’s new head of state Józef Piłsudski, that he could contemplate resuming his musical life as a virtuoso pianist.

People flocked to his comeback concerts — unsurprisingly, given that he was really the 20th century’s first superstar. ‘Paddymania’ had gripped audiences on both sides of the Atlantic since the 1890s, when ladies had to be carried out of his concerts in a fainting condition. His star burned brightest of all perhaps in the United States, where the Polish political cause had already been pleaded in cultural terms by the trailblazing actress Helena Modrzejewska, who could enrapture audiences simply by reciting the alphabet in Polish. Soon enough, Paderewski was enjoying his own private railway carriage for travelling across America. Politics had shaped his life right from the beginning — as a toddler he witnessed the arrest of his father for his role in the 1863 uprising, and even caught a few lashes of the Russian soldiers’ whips himself — and his prominence in the United States would eventually enable him to win the support of President Woodrow Wilson, who proved to be Poland’s most powerful and effective ally in achieving its independence. Paderewski had also been acquainted with Wilson’s three predecessors — William McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft. (As a postscript to this it is perhaps worth noting that when the great musician’s remains were finally returned to Poland after the fall of communism in 1992, among those in attendance at the requiem were George Bush Sr.)

It would be no exaggeration to say that, although of course always a figure of renown at home, Paderewski enjoyed his greatest fame in the English-speaking world — and it might be argued that this has not always been helpful to his wider posthumous reputation. It was in New York that he would die, though his main home — and base for touring — had since 1899 been the sumptuous Villa Riond-Bosson at Morges, near Lausanne. Enjoying the lavish fruits of his success, he had also bought a ranch in California at Paso Robles, where he dabbled with growing Zinfandel vines. But from the early 1890s onwards and throughout his touring years, Paderewski was also never far for long from London. Here he found further support for the Polish cause. Elgar paid tribute to Paderewski by quoting from his music in the symphonic prelude Polonia, composed in 1915 in aid of the Polish Victims’ Relief Fund. It’s a glorious piece, also cladding other music — including what would become the Polish national anthem, Dąbrowski’s Mazurka — in characteristically brilliant Elgarian orchestral colours. It was a tribute to Paderewski’s network that the list of the great and the good (not always so good) supporting the Polish fund included such names as Thomas Hardy and Winston Churchill. Only his compatriot Joseph Conrad turned down the invitation to join, explaining via telegram: ‘With all deference to your illustrious personality, must decline membership committee where I understand Russian names are to appear.’ With this exception, doors opened for Paderewski almost everywhere, and he went to Downing St to lobby David Lloyd George.

He rubbed shoulders with unelected heads of state, too. Just as ordinary freedom- and music-loving people fell under his spell, so did kings and queens. In London in summer 1891, having enjoyed dinner with everyone from Henry James to Lawrence Alma-Tadema and Edward Burne-Jones, Oscar Wilde to Aubrey Beardsley and assorted aristocrats, he was summoned to play at Windsor Castle for Queen Victoria. Paderewski recalled: ‘She addressed me in beautiful French and impressed me as being a queen in every sense of that often misused word. There was such majesty about that little woman … I was surprised to find that she knew so much about music. Whatever she said was just to the point.’ She more than returned the compliment, and as something of an astute ‘music critic’ herself (with experience going back to such favourites of hers as Mendelssohn and Jenny Lind) noted in her diary that he played with ‘Such power, and such tender feeling. I really think he is quite equal to [Anton] Rubinstein.’

What a difference the year had made. Paderewski’s debut in London at St James’s Hall in 1890 had been a flop, sparsely attended and negatively reviewed. (In the later words of Arthur Rubinstein, ‘The English were known for being slow to accept young newcomers.’) But already then he had society friends who mobilized things for him, and before long artists, entranced by his pre-Raphaelite looks, were clamouring to paint him. Soon he was doing the rounds of the private soirées (and frequently resenting them). But the end of summer 1890 he set off to tour Britain’s regional cities, making the sort of impression that the critic John Alexander Fuller Maitland would later summarize when he called Paderewski the ‘one who seems to … unite in himself all the greatest qualities of all the greatest pianists that have ever lived.’ Celebrity status meant world tours, including to such parts of the British Empire as New Zealand, Australia and South Africa (which, having appeared in such provincial towns as Bloemfontein and Pietermaritzburg on his March 1912 visit, he described as ‘a very unpleasant experience altogether’). One wonders whether he recalled the visit to General Jan Smuts while sitting opposite him at the Paris Peace Conference.

Paderewski’s biographer Adam Zamoyski describes him without hyperbole as ‘the most popular pianist there has ever been’. He belongs in the direct line of composer-pianists from Liszt and Anton Rubinstein, though his own output was much smaller. Often he played all-Chopin recitals, and on the international stage his Polishness made this connection in audience’s minds almost inevitable. So it is a pity that we have only an incomplete picture of his playing; he made his first record at the age of 51 and though returning frequently to the studio for the rest of his life he was never comfortable with the process or philosophy of recording. It’s certainly true that his best playing was never captured. A pianist who suffered from nerves and practised extraordinarily hard, he might have left an even more legendary impression had he retired earlier (or not returned to the concert platform after World War I).

Most of his recordings were made in either Britain or America, another reflection of his pact with the Anglo-Saxon world. In his study Chopin Playing, James Metheun-Campbell goes as far as calling Paderewski ‘one of the first casualties of the gramophone. Before the First World War he was one of the greatest pianists, but he was coaxed into the recording studio as an old man and made several discs, some of which are barely satisfactory and others disgracefully inaccurate for an artist of this high standing.’ His earliest recordings are undoubtedly the finest and demonstrate the hypnotic tone and hushed atmosphere for which he was so celebrated.

For all that Paderewski’s own edition of Chopin works, which he began editing in 1937 but was completed after his death (and World War II), has been superseded by more accurate Urtexts, he had an authority when it came to the composer’s music based on connections to an authentic style. One pianist Paderewski admired particularly was Moriz Rosenthal, who had begun lessons with Chopin’s pupil Karol Mikuli aged only nine. An early teacher of Paderewski had been Juliusz Janotha, who together with his daughter Natalia Janotha had known Chopin’s favourite pupil, Princess Marcelina Czartoryska. From the age of 24, Paderewski had studied in Vienna with the renowned pedagogue Theodor Leschetizky, himself a pupil of Czerny and therefore a ‘grand-pupil’ of Beethoven. Leschetizky, who was 19 when Chopin died, never heard Chopin play, but his circle included those who had known Chopin and his performances. Perhaps tellingly, Paderewski also favoured the same make of piano as Chopin, Erard, except in America when he was obliged to play on Steinway instruments.

Paderewski’s Chopin recordings are mostly of the smaller pieces; there are no Scherzos, Ballades or Sonatas (only the Funeral March movement of the B flat minor Sonata). But some works he recorded a number of times—for example, the Nocturne in F sharp major, Op. 15 No. 2 (five versions between 1911 and 1937), a tally equalled only by the five recordings of his own popular Minuet in G. He can be seen as well as heard starring in film entitled Moonlight Sonata, made in London in 1935, the soundtrack of which he recorded at Abbey Road. A box-office success at the time, it has aged badly as a movie but (available on YouTube) it is still a revealing document of what a Paderewski recital might have been like.

Writing the Paderewski entry in The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, the distinguished musicologist Jim Sampson is not wrong to conclude that ‘It is the legendary pianist, the charismatic statesman and the truly remarkable personality that stake their claims on our attention today.’ But perhaps he is a little harsh when he says that ‘Paderewski the composer may say little to modern audiences.’ It’s a view that may be changing, thanks to an increasing number of fine performances and a less orthodox view of musical fashion. His compositions are not all masterpieces by any means, but Paderewski’s role as a society figure may have inclined people to take his music less seriously. Among the ‘salon’ pieces, there are some perfect miniatures: such works as the Mélodie Op. 16, with its Chopinesque cantilena, or the quietly consoling Nocturne in B flat major. Sometimes small works are the real test of great pianism. The big Variations and Fugue on an Original Theme in E flat minor, Op. 23, is an imposing work by any standards and deserves to be more widely heard. Of all his large-scale orchestral works, the magnificent Piano Concerto in A minor stands out for its invigorating and poetic moods. Thanks to many recordings — by Earl Wild, Barbara Hesse-Bukowska, Felicja Blumenthal, Kevin Kenner, Nelson Goerner, Dang Thai Son, Piers Lane, Jonathan Plowright, Janina Fialkowska among others — it retains a hold on music lovers’ consciousness.

Paderewski’s own favourite among his works was his opera Manru, a haunting piece, full of dramatic momentum and rich orchestral colour and still the only work by a Polish composer to have been staged at New York’s Metropolitan Opera. Based on Józef Ignacy Kraszewski’s novel The Cottage Outside the Village, it presents (unlike the source of the Bizet’s gypsy opera) an unglamorous side of gypsy life, also inverting Merimée by having a male anti-hero and by keeping all the major protagonists alive (only just, it turns out). And it shows that in the current political climate, the founder of the modern Polish state still has a message for us. As the Teatr Wielki’s general director Waldemar Dąbrowski noted in the programme when Polish National Opera revived Manru in 2018, ‘The story of love doomed to defeat in confrontation with convention and traditional social norms, powerless in the face of prejudice and deeply rooted superstitions, is essentially a warning against xenophobia and intolerance—a treatise on the crushing force of the community.’

In 1941, the New York branch of the London publisher Boosey & Hawkes commissioned a Homage to Paderewski album in celebration of the 50th anniversary of the great musician’s American debut. By the time it was published in 1942 it had become a memorial to him, but it still featured 17 composers who themselves had mostly gravitated to America and the diverse group ranges from Bartók and Milhaud to Joaquín Nin-Culmell (brother of the more famous Anaïs), with gems including pieces by Martinu (his first work written in America) and Castelnuovo-Tedesco. Britten misunderstood the instructions and delivered a piece for two pianos, so his Mazurka elegiaca was published separately. There could hardly have been a more cosmopolitan tribute to this founder of modern Poland and citizen of the world.

John Allison

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