Paderewski's piano: A story of the World's Fair

May 1, 2012

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On May 1, 1893, the World's Columbian Exposition opened in Jackson Park. One forgotten story of the fair is the tale of Paderewski's piano.

Ignacy Jan Paderewski was a Polish-born pianist. In 1893, at 32, he was already the world’s most famous musician. But there was more to him than skill at the keyboard. Paderewski had sex appeal.

Women jammed the concert hall for his performances. Some of them fainted when he played. A few even fainted when they saw him on the street. One newspaper came up with a name for the phenomenon–"Paddymania."

At the end of April, Paderewski was just finishing a series of Chicago concerts, and was about to leave for Europe. Conductor Theodore Thomas asked him to stay around for a week to play at the fair. Paderewski agreed to do it, without fee. Everything was set.

Then the fair’s bureaucrats got into the act. Paderewski performed on Steinway pianos. Steinway was not an exhibitor at the fair. Therefore, Paderewski would have to use one of the “official” pianos.

Paderewski refused. He said a musician should be free to select his own instrument. He had signed a contract to use only Steinway pianos. Besides, the company had been good to him and he was loyal.

The dispute hit the front pages and stayed there. Negotiations went on behind closed doors. A compromise was suggested, where Paderewski would alternate between a Steinway and one of the other pianos. He wouldn’t budge.

Many newspapers thought he was being a temperamental prima donna, and said so. Theodore Thomas angrily reminded everyone that Paderewski had already delayed his departure from Chicago. The pianist was also offering to play for free, when he might have demanded several thousand dollars.

Now the arguments became more heated. President Cleveland was coming to Chicago to open the fair. Maybe the President could settle the piano problem.

Finally, fair officials gave in. Paderewski performed on his Steinway–brilliantly, as usual.

Paderewski continued his concert career until his death in 1941. Along the way, he served as the first Prime Minister of an independent Poland, and later starred in a feature film.

He loved Chicago, and often returned. He said that three things in America impressed him–Niagara Falls, the Grand Canyon and the City of Chicago. Today the Polish Museum of America maintains a Paderewski Room filled with memorabilia. The centerpiece of the exhibit is the artist’s personal piano.

It’s a Steinway, of course.