This year marks the 80th anniversary of the death of Paderewski, who was one of the most outstanding pianists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries and the man to whom Poland largely owes the recovery of its independence in 1918.
Virtuoso, a musical production by the Music Theatre in Poznań, western Poland, tells the story of Paderewski as a showman who helped the country regain its independence more than a century ago.
The musical had its world premiere in September last year and will be performed at Warsaw’s Dramatyczny Theatre from Friday to Sunday.
“Had he lived in the 1970s, he would have been a huge star like Elvis Presley or the Beatles," Przemysław Kieliszewski, director of the Music Theatre in Poznań and the author of lyrics for the musical, said of Paderewski.
"His pull on the popular imagination was so powerful that the frenzy he aroused in America is called ‘Paddymania’ to this day,” Kieliszewski added, as cited by the poland.pl website.
According to Matthew Hardy, the American who wrote Virtuoso’s book, music and libretto, Paderewski’s popularity was a product of his talent, hard work and good looks.
Hardy wove Chopin’s music and Paderewski’s own compositions into the musical, the poland.pl website reported.
The libretto, which received an award in an international competition organised by the Warsaw-based Adam Mickiewicz Institute, shows Paderewski’s transformation from a socialite into an influential world politician.
The lyrics of some of the songs were based on the great pianist’s speeches.
Virtuoso is produced in cooperation with Brian Kite, interim dean of the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television in Los Angeles and a prize-winning musical director.
The show is directed by Jerzy Jan Połoński, known for his many productions at the Music Theatre in Poznań.
Star of his time
Paderewski, who served as Poland’s prime minister and foreign minister from January to December 1919, was a star of his time. Audiences were enthralled by the music he played, poland.pl reported.
According to the pianist’s biographer, Charles Phillips, when Paderewski played he spoke "the language of Heaven."
"To hear him is a spiritual experience,” Phillips wrote, according to poland.pl.
The website also said that Paderewski was particularly admired by American women, who would scream and go wild at his performances "in a way that anticipated the outbreak of Beatlemania half a century later."
The piano virtuoso capitalised on his celebrity for a noble cause—using close contacts with American political, cultural and economic elites, especially with President Woodrow Wilson, to help Poland regain independence in 1918.
'King of the piano'
Paderewski, born on November 6, 1860 in Kuryłówka (now Ukraine), came from a noble family with strong patriotic traditions.
At 12, he was admitted to the Warsaw Conservatory. He studied composition in Berlin, and then piano in Vienna.
His first major breakthrough came when he was asked to perform with Helena Modrzejewska, a Polish actress who had made a glittering career on the world stage.
Her generous offer to combine her popular declamations with Paderewski’s musical performances allowed the young pianist to raise funds for his studies in Vienna.
His professional debut in March 1888, at the Salle Érard in Paris, was a smashing success. The audience was so enthusiastic that he played an hour of encores. Instantly, Paderewski’s international career took off.
He was showered with offers for solo recitals and guest appearances with orchestras.
Ignacy Jan Paderewski, Lawrence Alma-Tadema, 1890. Photo: [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons
He played music by the Romantic composer Frederic Chopin at every concert, but also composed works of his own. Some of the latter enjoyed great success, such as the Minuet in G major, op. 14 no. 1, and Manru, an opera which premiered at the Metropolitan Opera in 1902, according to poland.pl.
Altogether, Paderewski’s oeuvre spans more than 70 works.
He was the second Polish pianist after Chopin to give concerts at the homes of London’s aristocracy, including two private performances before Queen Victoria herself.
His first U.S. tour was organised and funded by the Steinway family. Paderewski became the best-known performing artist of his day, the virtuoso he had always dreamed of becoming. He was dubbed king of the piano.
Desire to serve his country
From earliest childhood, Paderewski’s artistic ambitions were accompanied by an equally fervent desire to serve his native country, which the partitions had erased from the world map by 1795.
His desire to “be somebody” was always fuelled by his determination to aid the cause of Polish independence. Paderewski dreamed of Poland’s liberation. As he wrote in his memoirs, music and patriotism were one for him.
When World War I broke out, he decided to use his popularity to advance the Polish cause. At the time, Paderewski was living in the United States. In 1917, he met with Woodrow Wilson and persuaded the American president to include Poland’s independence in a blueprint for a postwar geopolitical order.
After the meeting, on January 8, 1918, Wilson delivered an address to the U.S. Congress outlining this famous “Fourteen Points” programme. One of these points called for restoration of “an independent Polish state.”
In December 1918, Paderewski made a triumphant return to a newly independent Poland. From a window of the Bazar Hotel in Poznań, he made an impassioned speech to the Polish population that sparked the outbreak of the Wielkopolska Uprising, which freed the province from German rule.
In January 1919, Paderewski was appointed the prime minister and foreign minister of independent Poland, whose delegation he would lead to the international peace conference at Versailles.
In 1921, Paderewski retired from politics and resumed his concert career. Once again he was a tremendous success. Critics wrote that no other pianist in the world was so sensitive to the poetry of music.
Paderewski had millions of fans, as evidenced by his star on Hollywood Boulevard’s Walk of Fame.
Passion and panache
A born perfectionist, Paderewski brought great passion and panache to everything he did. At his estate in Paso Robles, California, he established an almond plantation and vineyard that produced some of the 10 best wines in California, according to a mid-1930s ranking by the Los Angeles Times.
His Zinfandel grapes are still used to make wine in the area to this day.
Paderewski was also a philanthropist who helped orphans, impoverished musicians and war victims. He financed the construction of monuments, including the Washington Arch in New York and a monument in Poland's Kraków commemorating the victory of the Polish army in the 1410 Battle of Grunwald.
In 1939, just before the outbreak of World War II, he once again set out on a US tour. By then he was nearly in his 80s. The outbreak of the war found him in New York. Seeking to help his country as he had done during the First World War, Paderewski immediately began meeting with prominent officials and luminaries.
He died of pneumonia in 1941. His remains are buried at St. John's Basilica in Warsaw.