Paderewski’s Piano

When Polish pianist Ignace Paderewski toured America, he became a celebrity—and boosted Steinway

Its gleaming black frame perches with dignity on three fluted columns. The ivories are white, all bloodstains now carefully removed. Only the inscription under the lid of Steinway concert grand No. 71227 at the National Museum of American History — a few words in black ink scrawled onto gilt metal — bears testimony to a trying musical tour and the great musician who survived it: "This piano has been played by me during the season 1892-1893 in seventy-five concerts. I. J. Paderewski."

Today Paderewski is often recalled not for his music but for his famous epigram about diligence: "If I don't practice for one day, I know it; if I don't practice for two days, the critics know it; if I don't practice for three days, the audience knows it." By 1892, though, Paderewski was more than a great pianist; he was a mass-market wonder who inspired ad campaigns for shampoos, candy, soaps and party treats, even a windup toy of a little man frenetically pounding his little piano. "Paddymania," a London newspaper gasped, "has reached such heights that three New York ladies have embroidered musical phrases from [his] Minuet on their stockings."

Paderewski's triumphal assault on America started with a recommendation to William Steinway from an agent in London, urging him to sign a young Polish pianist for a U.S. tour. Ignace himself arrived in New York on November 1891, only to be gloomily greeted at dockside by Steinway representative Charles Tretbar bearing grim tidings. "You have had brilliant successes in London and Paris," Tretbar declared, "but let me tell you, Mr. Paderewski, you need not expect anything like that here in America.... We are not easily pleased here." Famous last words.

A grueling schedule put Paderewski through 107 concerts in just 117 days. Concerts often lasted for hours, but they included encores to appease the roaring applause. In an era when solo piano recitals were uncommon, Paderewski packed concert halls everywhere he went. But the tour nearly ended his career. In Rochester, New York, he walked onto the stage and struck the opening chords of Beethoven's Appassionata. Immediately, a scorching pain shot up his right arm as if something had shattered. He kept playing and managed to finish the concert. But he had seriously injured his hand on the stiff hammer action of the Steinway. He had often complained lightly about the "dangerous" action, cheerfully referring to the piano as "my enemy." But after Rochester he played in constant pain, needing massages and jolts of electricity before concerts just to get his injured finger to move. Doctors warned of permanent damage, but Paderewski insisted on honoring his pledge, even though it meant teaching himself to play with just four fingers of his right hand. He never recovered full use of his ring finger.

But the 1891-92 tour was a tremendous boon for Steinway & Sons, which had been thriving ever since Heinrich Steinweg left Seesen, Germany, in 1850 and settled his piano-making business in New York City. Piano technology was a growth industry, and the Steinways were at the hot center. Tinkerers had been improving on Bartolomeo Cristofori's pianoforte since the early 1700s. Heinrich's son, Henry Jr., opened the lid on every piano he came across, looking for new ideas, among them the use of a cast-iron frame for holding heavy-gauge strings under enormous tension, which gave a more brilliant and powerful sound. Henry improved the metal frame's shape, rearranged the strings for a richer tone, made the soundboard more vibrant and improved the piano's responsiveness to the musician, logging seven patents in the process. By the time of his death in 1865 at 34, he'd essentially created the modern piano. His brother Theodor filed another 45 patents.

Each Steinway concert grand that emerged from the original factory in Manhattan was a masterpiece of some 40,000 parts, including screws, and the product of 300 craftsmen.

In their advertising, the Steinways capitalized on Americans' love of technology, but for renown, they set their sights on demonstrations at Europe's great expositions, which also functioned as trade shows. Pianists played each piano on display, and judges awarded prizes for quality. National pride was often at stake. At the 1867 Paris Exposition, the Steinway competed with more than 400 pianos and took a gold medal. The Steinway triumph shifted the center of piano making from Europe to the New World. In 1890, Steinway & Sons made more than 2,300 pianos, part of a national industry that produced more than 150,000. From its roots as an amusement for the rich, the piano had become a token of respectability for all households, and the home entertainment center of the late 1800s. After Henry Jr.'s death, it was brother William Steinway, more than Theodor, who saw that artists' endorsements could broaden the market further. William started as the "bellyman" of the business — the person who installed the soundboard — and ended as a captain of industry. He paid touring musicians well but imposed a factory-like schedule on their performances. The tour he set in 1872 for the legendary Russian pianist Anton Rubinstein left Rubinstein swearing never to return to America. Paderewski, despite his injuries, found a second Steinway tour irresistible.

Paderewski was an exotic 32-year-old European widower whose poverty-stricken childhood was romantically embellished by ancient connections to nobility. He was no brooding artist, however, but a man with a disarming sense of humor. His appearance cast a spell of its own: pale, even features, dramatic cheekbones and an unruly mane of reddish-gold hair. Acquaintances often likened his effect to electricity. "He is electric as life," said one woman. Another pianist marveled at how Paderewski's "presence illuminated that room though a blinding light had been turned on." The press seized on his dramatic plumage as a focus: a Philadelphia hack wrote, "It was only a feather duster / But she worshiped it, she said, / For its fascinating likeness / To Paderewski's head." "There's Music in the Hair!" chortled a New York headline. "Matinee Girls on Rampage!" warned another.

The eye of the storm was a deeply insecure performer who had begun formal study late, with a fingering technique that made his piano teachers groan. A London reviewer named George Bernard Shaw caught Paderewski's first concerts in London and alternated between scorn and praise. Shaw mockingly hailed "the immensely spirited young harmonious blacksmith" and his playing as "a brutal fantasia on the theme of the survival of the fittest." But Shaw also conceded Paderewski's genius for interpretation. Other critics agreed. "There are many persons who shun piano recitals as intolerable bores," wrote Henry Finck, music critic for the New York Evening Post, "but who never miss a Paderewski concert because when he plays, Bach and Beethoven are no longer riddles to them but sources of pleasure."

Paderewski launched his second American tour in late 1892 on a Steinway with improved action. This time around, he enjoyed his own private railcar with room for his secretary, valet, piano tuner, manager, chef and two porters. Crowds gathered at railroad crossings for a glimpse as he passed. He, in turn, was fascinated by his American audiences, who greeted him as "Paderooski" instead of "Paderevski." In Kansas City, he marveled as several hundred Texans arrived, all clutching volumes of music. "They crowded the hotels," he recalled later, "they gathered in clusters at the street corners, and they stood in line in front of the box office — all with their music in hand." He ate nothing on the day of a performance and worked out with dumbbells every morning. He practiced endlessly as well, to quell his nervousness.

There were some trials, too. Because nothing could keep him from the concert stage long enough for it to heal, a scratched finger grew infected under the relentless pressure of playing. During a performance the bandaged finger opened and blood seeped onto the keyboard. "I soon got accustomed to it," he admitted. "During the rest of that tour ... the keyboard was always red when I finished."

That tour netted him a princely $160,000. After four extra concerts to benefit charities, he was ready to return to Europe, only pausing long enough to play at the opening of the Chicago World's Fair, generously offering to forgo his fee as a tribute to his affection for bustling Chicago. That proved a mistake. Chicago's piano makers prided themselves on their superiority to East Coast outfits like Steinway and hoped that the fair's piano competition would prove their point. That seemed likely, since the contest was to be decided by just one judge: Florenz Ziegfeld, father of the Ziegfeld Follies impresario and head of the Chicago Musical College. As it happened, Chicago piano mogul W. W. Kimball sat on the board of Ziegfeld's college. The Steinways and other Eastern piano makers were outraged by this plan and caused a fuss by pulling out of the competition. Midwestern pianos, the New York Times sniped, "ill sound much better when they are not compared with the pianos of Boston and Baltimore and New York." Chicagoans responded by banning from the fair's stages any piano not entered in the contest. And that ran smack into Paderewski's agreement to play only Steinways.

With rumors flying and just days before President Grover Cleveland was to inaugurate the fair, Paderewski held firm. "Throughout the wide world, any artist is permitted to use the instrument of his choice," he announced, "and I do not understand why I should be forced to play an instrument of a manufacturer strange to me." Negotiations were still angrily proceeding when he reached the fairgrounds. Attempts to solve the piano stalemate embroiled a national commission and a piano committee and gave rise to some hopeless suggestions, one being that during his performance Paderewski rotate between several onstage pianos. On the morning of the day of the opening concert, fair officials decreed that the Music Hall was separate from the official Chicago World's Fair and so not bound by its rules. Paderewski could play his Steinway.

Still nursing an infected finger, he took the stage. Wind whipped through the unfinished hall. William Steinway, confined to a sickbed in New York, had followed Paderewski's progress by cables. His May 2 diary entry notes proudly, "Paderewski played at the Chicago Fair on Steinway grand in spite of all the opposition." Days later Paderewski sailed back to Europe. In his wake, he left a swirl of Steinway condemnations in the Chicago papers, and crowds that stretched around the block to see the piano he had played, which was on view in the Chicago Steinway dealership.

In his future, which lasted until 1941, when he died at 80, lay an even greater career as statesman — and patriot. He was Poland's premier in 1919 and the revered elder statesman of the Polish government in exile, defending the hopes of his country, overrun by Nazi and Soviet armies, with the same fiery determination and passion he had brought to his brilliant American piano tours.

Get the latest Travel & Culture stories in your inbox.