Ignacy Jan Paderewski, author Max Skorwider


From Poland with Music: Ignacy Jan Paderewski

The history of nations is made by titans of human genius. Ignacy Jan Paderewski – one of the best pianists ever, a composer, master teacher, publisher of Chopin’s works, public speaker, social activist, and politician – was undoubtedly one of them[1].

Ignacy Jan Paderewski

Date and place of birth: 18 November 1860, Kuryłówka.

Date and place of death: 29 June 1941, New York.

Date and place of emigration: 1882, Germany (Berlin); 1884, Austria (Vienna); 1885, France (Strasbourg, Paris); 1899, Switzerland (Riond-Bosson); 1913–1921, United States (Paso Robles, California); 1923, Switzerland (Riond-Bosson); 1940, United States (New York, Paso Robles).

Return to Poland (yes/no): He did not return permanently.        

Activities before emigration

After graduating from the Music Institute in Warsaw (later the Warsaw Conservatory) in 1878, Paderewski taught piano there at the secondary school level. To add to his modest salary as a teacher, he played at parties and, in resorts with the violinist Władysław Górski; he also gave private piano lessons. His time in Poland was devoted primarily to improving his skills on piano and making his first composing attempts. His pieces were characterized by a Romantic spirit, strongly linked to the traditions of Chopin. Some of his songs and small works for piano were performed during various exhibitions. He also willingly improvised, which brought him more satisfaction than playing notated compositions. Time he spent in Poland was also marked by his first family tragedies: his father was imprisoned for participating in the January Uprising of 1863 and a few months after his marriage in 1881, his first wife died.

After emigration

The first stages of his emigration consisted mostly of travels for educational and artistic development. He wanted to study composition and deepen his pianist skills, as well as do concert tours and earn money. During this time he lived both abroad and in Poland. In 1882 he went to Berlin to study composition with Friedrich Kiel, with whom he also studied counterpoint. While being there, he published his first works with Bote und Bock. At the same time he taught piano at the Music Institute in Warsaw, this time in the higher-level education. In 1884 he studied composition with Heinrich Urban in Berlin and piano with Teodor Leszetycki (Theodor Leschetizky) in Vienna. In the meantime he met Tytus Chałubiński in Zakopane, performed one evening on the same bill as Helena Modrzejewska in Kraków, and visited his father in Żytomierz (Zhitomir, now in Ukraine). For one year (1885–1886) he worked at the Conservatory in Strasbourg. In 1888 he performed concerts in Paris, where he settled a year later. From there, he went on numerous concert tours, including a tour in the United States.

The second stage of his emigration – one can say this was his actual one – was to Switzerland in 1899, where, after marrying Helena Górska, he bought a palace in Riond-Bosson. His piano career proved to be an amazing success; the enthusiasm of his audiences was comparable to the admiration shown for Franz Liszt (Lisztomania”) in the 1840s. Meanwhile he continued to compose, although this activity remained on the margins of his concert career. His compositions were performed in various parts of the world (e.g., Manru, an opera, was produced in Dresden, Lviv, and New York). In 1903, he suspended his career as a pianist to devote himself to composing. Among other things, he wrote sketches for his Symphony in B minor, op. 24, and his most important piano works, including the Sonata in E flat minor, op. 21. His tremendous notoriety and artistic success as a pianist allowed him to become gradually involved in the Polish push for independence (the so-called Polish issue), while his financial fortune allowed for more and more intensive social activity (through his funding of the Grunwald Monument in Kraków in 1910) and charity (with Henryk Sienkiewicz, he founded the Central Committee for Aid to War Victims in Poland in 1915). All of this was designed to draw the world’s attention to Poland’s problems.

Beginning in 1916, he devoted himself to political activity, which culminated in his becoming Prime Minister and Foreign Minister in independent Poland in 1919.

As Poland’s situation stabilized, Paderewski resigned from his political functions and left for California, where he rested before returning to the concert stages in 1922, making recordings and donating part of his royalties to charity.

Differences between the old and new realities

It is difficult to talk about two specifically distinct worlds in Paderewski’s case. For the sake of simplicity we should name them as Poland and non-Poland (Germany, Austria, France, Switzerland, and the United States). He traveled the whole world and lived in many places. In some of them he even purchased houses, for example, in Switzerland and the United States. Each time, his new place of residence offered different possibilities than Poland had. In Berlin and Vienna, he could develop his composition and pianist skills. In Strasbourg, on the other hand, he developed as a teacher, even though he earned his living as a poorly paid piano teacher at the local conservatory. The United States was his dreamland, or as he recalled in his Memoirs (Pamiętniki), „fairytale land”. Switzerland, on the other hand, offered Paderewski an opportunity to rest in a quiet country manor. However, in the last period of his life the United States seemed to be not so much a „fairytale land” as a location safe from World War II and a place where he could again contribute to the Polish cause. All of Paderewski’s foreign planes of existence differed from Poland by their level of independence, also had a much better developed artistic life, and offered touring possibilities.

Reason for leaving Poland

There were several reasons for Paderewski’s emigration – as many as there were actual departures. Initially, he needed education that he could not find in Poland, that’s why he went first to Berlin and then, thanks to financial support from Helena Modrzejewska (Modjeska), to Vienna. Another reason was also probably a desire to move away from the trauma of the death of his wife, Antonina Korsakówna, shortly after the birth of their son Alfred (the boy, suffering from polio, died in 1901). Financial considerations were also important: the sick child required considerable resources for treatment. Due to its favorable climate and relative quiet, Switzerland was an ideal place for his ill son (see the composer’s Memoirs). It seems that settling in Switzerland and the United States for longer periods of time also resulted from his need for freedom, the desire to feel that everything is possible, and yearning for comfort and an organized life.

Postemigration contact with Poland

Paderewski’s contacts with his home country after his emigration were so close that it was sometimes difficult to separate a longer stay (which could be regarded as a temporary return) from shorter visits related either to tours or holidays. He was constantly visible in press reports from concerts and as an author of political speeches and texts about music. Above all, however, he was the greatest advocate for Polish independence – he made a major contribution to this cause with his fiery speeches, so much so that the President of the United States, Thomas Woodrow Wilson, set an independent Poland as a condition for world peace after World War I. Paderewski returned to Poland in December 1918 and in 1919 he took the positions of Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs. He signed the Treaty of Versailles on behalf of Poland. After his resignation from political office, he left the country, only to return quickly after the Bolsheviks attack in 1920.

Later, he was rarely visiting Poland, but kept contacts close; he supported young Polish musicians, teaching them and funding scholarships, and became politically involved once more in the 1930s.

With Władysław Sikorski, he co-founded the Front Morges organization. After the outbreak of Second World War, he became one of the representatives of the Polish government in exile. As of 1934, he also led the editorial committee for Chopin’s Complete Works.

Influence of the new home on the composer’s music

All of his works evoke a romantic image of Poland. They incorporate references to Polish dances (polonaise, krakowiak, and mazurka) and highlander music – Tatra album (Album tatrzańskie), op. 12, Polish Dances (Tańce polskie), op. 5. Paderewski’s love of his country is reflected in the titles of his compositions – Polish Fantasy (Fantazja polska), op. 19 and Symphony in B minor Polonia”, which includes a quote from Dąbrowski’s Mazurka (Mazurek Dąbrowskiego), themes (Manru), and musical settings of quotes from Polish poets (e.g., Asnyk and Mickiewicz). It seems that apart from perfecting his composing experience, emigration did not significantly alter Paderewski’s musical language, although it should be noted that he modernized his music somewhat through the use of increased dissonance and richer harmony. It has to be remembered, though, that he stopped composing at the beginning of the 1920s.

Awareness of the composer’s music in both countries

Paderewski’s work is performed internationally, although it is not part of the standard repertoire. It is heard in Poland more often than in other countries. His personality still obscures his compositional output, even though it was when composing gave him most happiness. His achievements still await rediscovering and fair promotion.

Composer’s personality

It is problematic briefly to describe such a rich personality. He was generous, sociable, open to the world, hard-working, ambitious, stubborn in his aspirations, persistent, independent, self-conscious, critical, extremely emotional, committed with all his heart to what he did, and always helpful when necessary.

Remarkable anecdote or biographical fact

Anecdotes and interesting biographical facts about Paderewski can be mentioned in many ways, from his appearances in films (Moonlight Sonata, 1937) to his fervent interviews about Polish independence and his career as a Prime Minister, also in his fundraising for war victims and granting of scholarships to Polish musicians.

He received numerous state awards from various countries (Poland, Belgium, France, Spain, Italy, and Romania) and honorary doctorates from Yale, Oxford, Columbia, Jagiellonian University, and Warsaw University, among others.

A less known story from Paderewski’s life is about his teachers from the Music Institute in Warsaw saw in young student musician the material for a composer and performer who could become multi-instrumentalist (helicon, double bass, horn, trombone, trumpet, oboe, clarinet, and flute). However, they never considered him as a pianist. 

Respondent’s Top Choices

Favorite work: Minuet from Humoresques de concert, op. 14 (1887), for its charm, lightness, fin de siècle elegance, and memories of childhood.

Best work: For Paderewski, it was most likely Symphony in B minor Polonia, op. 24 (1903–1907). It seems, however, that as his opus magnum we should instead consider his opera Manru, op. 20 (1893–1901), which was staged at the New York Metropolitan Opera the year after its premiere. It was performed nine times in New York. Its libretto, written by Alfred Nossig, was based on Ignacy Kraszewski’s novel A Hut Behind the Village (Chata za wsią). Its theme seems to be ideal for this book about emigration: the protagonist, a wandering Romani, was expelled from a collapsing house, which in the era of Young Poland” (Młoda Polska) was seen as a metaphor of the Polish homeland. This metaphor and the opera’s subject reminded the composer of post-partition Poland; in other countries, such an interpretation would not be as profoundly understood.

Composition still waiting to be discovered: Chamber music (such as Romance in A Major for violin and piano, 1881–1882), lyrical vocal pieces (Four Songs to Adam Asnyks poems/Cztery Pieśni do słów Asnyka, op. 7, 1882–1885), charming piano miniatures (Chants du Voyager, 1881–1882), which remain outside the main concert repertoire, and works still unpublished, such as Humoreska in A major for two oboes and two clarinets.

Respondent: Małgorzata Gamrat


[1] Rafał Szczepański, Fryderykowi Chopinowi – Ignacy Jan Paderewski, Warsaw: Wydawnictwa Akcydensowe, 1991, s. 5.

Text is from book From Poland with Music. 100 Years of Polish Composers Abroad (1918–2018), Fundacja MEAKULTURA / Scala (2021). 
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Partnerem Meakultura.pl jest Fundusz Popierania Twórczości Stowarzyszenia Autorów ZAiKS

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