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Cabinet photograph by Elliott & Fry, c.1895.

Ignacy Jan PADEREWSKI (1860-1941)

December 2010

(b. Kurylówka, Podolia, 6 November 1860; d. New York, 29 June 1941).

Paderewski was one of the most successful pianists of all time. To his contemporaries the very personification of the piano, he was recognised by critics and colleagues as the natural successor to both Liszt (the ultimate pianistic sensation) and Chopin (the inspired poet). J.A.Fuller-Maitland, music critic of The Times, described him as ‘one who seems to unite in himself all the greatest qualities of all the greatest pianists who have ever lived’. By any standards a remarkable human being, his generous commitment to the cause of Polish independence led to his being elected first President of the Polish Republic and signing the Versailles Treaty on behalf of his country in 1919.

Born into minor nobility in a remote part of what was then South- East Poland, Paderewski studied at the Warsaw Conservatory from 1872, in Berlin from 1881 to 1883 (during which time the publishing house of Bote & Bock began to issue his compositions) and then for two crucial periods in Vienna with the famous piano teacher Theodor Leschetizky. Debut recitals in Paris (1888) and Vienna (1889) made him an overnight sensation in both cities and although success was marginally less immediate in London (1890) and New York (1891) he soon had the world at his feet – at the start of a career which would span forty years and take him to four continents.

Paderewski’s generosity was legendary. In 1896 he endowed the Paderewski Foundation for young composers in the USA and two years later founded two competitions in Warsaw. In 1910 he commissioned a statue commemorating the quincentenary of a historic Polish victory and at the unveiling in Cracow in July made his first speech to the Polish nation. In November of the same year he delivered the opening address at a Chopin centenary festival in Lwów. (A copy of the English translation is shown below.) Paderewski later called these two speeches the start of his political career. He was engaged in a WWII fundraising campaign in the wake of the Nazi invasion of Poland when he died.

As a composer Paderewski’s works include the opera Manru (Dresden, 1901), a symphony (Boston,1909), piano concerto and Fantaisie Polonaise for piano and orchestra, all of which enjoyed contemporary success, as well as three collections of songs and a violin sonata dedicated to Sarasate. Best known for his solo piano music, he produced some of the most popular salon pieces of his time – notably the Minuet à l’antique, Op.14, No.1 (1887).

Numerous portraits were created of Paderewski – canvasses, drawings, busts, photographs and caricatures – some of the most famous of them in London. The list of honours he received world-wide is scarcely less impressive and includes the Gold Medal of London’s Philharmonic Society (1897) and honorary doctorates from Oxford, Glasgow and Cambridge Universities (1920-1926). In 1925 he was created Knight Commander of the British Empire.

Oliver Davies © 2010.

(We are grateful to The Chopin Society UK for help in the mounting of this display.)