His political career led to him becoming the first prime minister of the independent Republic of Poland. However, Ignacy Jan Paderewski went down in history for other reasons than being an ardent advocate of the Polish nation. This politician and philanthropist, who enjoyed universal acclaim as a citizen of the world, was also a talented musician. As a pianist, he was known for his charismatic stage presence and ability to connect emotionally with his audience. He could even electrify listeners with his personality. As a composer, on the other hand, he played an important role in the development of Polish national music, leaving behind works that are a unique blend of technical virtuosity, deep expressionism, and patriotic spirit.
by Iwona Lindstedt
Born in 1860 in Kuryłówka in Podolia, Ignacy Jan Paderewski spent his childhood in the warm atmosphere of his family home. He was orphaned by his mother but under the care of his father, who, after the January Uprising, took over the management of the Szaszkiewicz estate in Sudyłków, Podolia. At home, his musical talent was discovered and nurtured through piano lessons. Ignacy and his older sister often performed for guests by playing “piano four hands.” At age twelve, he left for Warsaw to study, where he was entrusted to the care of Edward Kerntopf, the director of one of Warsaw’s piano factories. He began his studies at the Institute of Music in the piano class of Józef Sliwinski and later under the guidance of Henryk Koman and Juliusz Janotha. In 1876, Paderewski wrote his major composition, “Valse Mignonne,” which he dedicated to his harmony and counterpoint teacher Gustaw Roguski. In 1878, after receiving his diploma, he accepted a position as a piano teacher at his alma mater. However, teaching did not satisfy him; instead, Paderewski desired to focus on composing and perfecting his piano technique. In 1882 and 1884, he traveled to Berlin twice to improve his knowledge of composition and instrumentation with Friedrich Kiel and Heinrich Urban. Under Urban’s guidance, Paderewski composed his first orchestral work, “Overture in E-flat minor” (1884). Thanks to the support of Helena Modrzejewska, he also began his piano studies in Vienna under the renowned Theodor Leschetizky.
Paderewski spent the summer break of 1883 and the following year in Zakopane, where he became acquainted with Polish highland music. He became acquainted with Bartek Obrochta, an already famous Zakopane musician, and composed the “Tatra Album: Op. 12” for piano. In this cycle, preceding Szymanowski’s exploration, he incorporated the Podhale “notes” during the summer.
Paderewski’s early period also included other collections of piano miniatures (e.g., “Album de Mai Scènes romantiques pour piano: Op. 10”), stylized dances, songs with piano accompaniment, and the “Violin Sonata in A Minor: Op. 13,” dedicated to Pablo Sarasate). Among the larger compositions written at the outset of his piano career, it is essential to mention the “Piano Concerto in A Minor: Op. 17,” first performed in Vienna in 1889 by Anetta Jessipova, the wife of Leschetizky. Paderewski’s works from this time, written in “l’antique” style, possess a distinctive character. The most famous example of these is the “Minuet in G Major” from the collection “Humoresques de Concert: Op. 14”, which immediately gained immense popularity, even though it was intended as a joke on Titus Chałubiński and Aleksander Świętochowski – both great admirers of Mozart’s work. For a long time, the two older men could not believe that this minuet was not the work of the brilliant Viennese composer but rather the young pianist’s own composition.
Paderewski’s illustrious virtuoso career, spanning over 50 years, and his triumphant tours of the world’s greatest concert stages began with his debut in Paris. On March 3, 1888, he gave a recital at the famous Salle Erard. After a string of European successes, he traveled to the United States in 1893, astonishing American audiences with performances in New York and Chicago. He meticulously curated the repertoire for his concerts, showcasing works by Bach, Beethoven, and the Romantic masters, and always included works by Frederic Chopin and occasionally his own compositions. He gained widespread fame and acclaim during his global concert tours. However, he sought solace from this nomadic lifestyle in Switzerland, where he initially rented and later purchased a property in Morges on Lake Leman.
Paderewski’s subsequent works – “Fantaisie Polonaise sur des Thèmes Originaux: Op. 19” (1893) for piano with orchestra, “Piano Sonata in E Flat Minor: Op. 21” (1903) and “Variations et Fugue sur un Thème original in E Flat Minor: Op. 23” (1903), songs to words by Catulle Mendès (“Douze Mélodies sur des Poésies de Catulle Mendès”), Op. 22, “Manru,” Op. 20 (1901) and the “Symphony in B Minor’ Polonia'” (1909) – were primarily composed during the summer months spent at the Riond-Bosson residence. Many of these – renowned for their technical mastery, charming melodies, and harmonies – achieved popularity during his lifetime and endure in concert repertoires today.
Notably, the lyrical drama “Manru” premiered on May 29, 1901, at the Königliches Opernhaus in Dresden under the direction of Ernest von Schuch. This piece was Paderewski’s first and only foray into stage work. It was written from a German libretto by Alfred Nossig, based on Józef Ignacy Kraszewski’s novel, “The Cottage Behind the Village.” In “Manru,” the composer skillfully employed his artistry to transport the listener into two distinct worlds that contrast dramatically. On the one hand, there is music infused with Polish elements drawn from native folklore, and on the other, with Hungarian-Gypsy rhythms and intonations.
On the other hand, the monumental “Symphony in B Minor – ‘Polonia’” was created as his tribute to the memory of the January Uprising. It consists of three movements that vividly portray the successive stages of Polish history from the time of partition to the moment of this patriotic uprising. The work debuted in 1909, conducted by Max Fiedler, and performed by the Boston Symphony Orchestra. It garnered attention for the depth of its expression and for using seldom-used distinctive instruments. These included the double bass sarrusophones (instruments typically associated with wind orchestras) and an idiophone modified according to the composer’s own design – the so-called thunder sheet or “tonitruon,” which produced a sound similar to thunder.
In addition, there is a group of Paderewski’s compositions that he never publicly disclosed, although he did not destroy them either. Among them are “Variations and Fugue in F Major for String Quartet,” “Suite in G Minor for String Orchestra,” “Song in F Major and Romance in A Major for Violin and Piano,” the songs “Dans la Forêt” (to words by Théophile Gautier) and “Konwalijka” (to words by Adam Asnyk), as well as the outline of a larger vocal and instrumental work “Cantata” for the unveiling of the monument to Adam Mickiewicz to words by K. Przerwy-Tetmajer [with the incipit “Szum ty morze…” (Hum, oh! Sea…)] and “Violin Concerto in G Minor.”
Paderewski’s entire compositional output was driven by his conviction that the duty and mission of an artist is to serve God and his nation. Therefore, incorporating national-patriotic elements into musical compositions became a compelling imperative for him. After the performance of Symphony “Polonia” in Paris, he expressed to the French music critic Jules Combarieu the words paraphrased in this essay: “I adore music, but I love my homeland more.”
However, Paderewski’s creative activity coincided with a gradual transformation in musical tastes and musical language, marked by the emergence of new audience expectations and evolving compositional trends. However, he chose to remain detached from these developments and was, one might say, a heathen of Romanticism and unwavering in his belief in the existence of unshakeable values in music. He struggled to comprehend and appreciate compositions that embraced the spirit of modernism and their creators. He expressed this perspective in 1934 when he wrote:
‘Their music is not born in the heart. It is simply written; it is not felt. True music must be like a flowing stream of fresh water, quenching human thirst. Most modern composers – it’s like soda water: at first it sparks, but after two or three sips, it leaves a feeling of unquenchable thirst. This is one of the reasons why I never play modern composers. And besides, I’m already too old to adapt to new things (‘Thoughts, remarks, comments’ Music 1934 No. 3, pp. 49-50).
Most likely, it was also for this reason that he basically stopped composing after 1909. Breaking his silence only once, when, in 1917, he wrote an anthem for the Polish Army in America for male chorus and wind ensemble – “Hey, White Eagle!”
Meanwhile, he turned his immense popularity and the financial success he achieved into philanthropic and patriotic-independence activities. A strong start came in 1910 when Paderewski took part in the unveiling – initiated and financed by himself – of a monument to Wladyslaw Jagiello (the so-called “Grunwald Monument”) in Cracow and in the celebration of the Chopin anniversary in Lvov. At the time, he delivered fiery speeches that thrilled crowds. The second of them – “A Speech on Chopin” – being a kind of “confession of faith of an artist and thinker,” remains a strong testimony of Paderewski’s passion and enthusiasm for the merits of Frederick of Żelazowa Wola for Polish culture. Proof that the creator of “Polonia” was a near-perfect speaker, which he used after the outbreak of World War I to convince global public opinion that a necessary condition for peace in post-war Europe would be the creation of an independent Polish state.
He crowned his political career by becoming the reborn Republic’s prime minister and foreign minister. However, in 1921, he abandoned politics in favor of returning to concertizing, to which, as long as he had the strength, Padarewski dedicated himself with almost as much intensity as he did at the outset of his career. In 1937, together with Ludwik Bronarski and Jozef Turczynski, he initiated the publication of the complete works of Frederick Chopin (known as the Paderewski Edition) to render their creator’s intentions as faithfully as possible.
That same year, he appeared in the Lothar Mendes film “Moonlight Sonata,” where he played himself. Today, the film serves as a unique record of Paderewski’s performing art, which can be admired during his renditions of the first movement of the Beethoven piece mentioned in the title, Franz Liszt’s “Second Hungarian Rhapsody,” Chopin’s “Heroic Polonaise” (Op. 53) and his own Minuet, among others. The value of this documentary is enhanced by the camera work, which includes close-ups of the pianist’s face and hands, allowing viewers to observe visual details that are impossible to capture on audio recordings.
With the outbreak of World War II, Paderewski, despite his advanced age and poor health, once again activated his energies to help the country. On his way back from the Convention of Polish Army Veterans in the USA, which took place in Oak Ridge, New Jersey, during which he spoke publicly for the last time, he contracted fatal pneumonia. He passed away on June 29, 1941, at the Buckingham Hotel in New York. Paderewski’s funeral, conducted with the highest military honors, occurred at Arlington National Cemetery in Washington on July 5, 1941. It was not until fifty years later, in accordance with his wishes, that his ashes were allowed to return to independent Poland and interred in St. John’s Archcathedral in Warsaw.
Author: Prof. Iwona Lindstedt – Professor at the Institute of Musicology, University of Warsaw
Translation: Alicja Rose & Jessica Sirotin