- Historic Sites
The Great Chicago Piano War
The battle between eastern and midwestern manufacturers hit fortissimo when the world’s most famous wizard of the keyboard turned up for the opening concert of the Columbian Exposition
October 1970 | Volume 21, Issue 6
Paderewski’s sensational debuts in Paris and London had brought him to the attention of the House of Steinway, the New York manufacturer responsible not only for important technical improvements in pianos, but also for the coup of importing European artists to tour the country and bring the indisputably golden notes of the Steinway piano to the ears of the forty-four states. Other pianists, including Anton Rubinstein, had already carried the Steinway banner across the country. Still others, of the stature of Hans von B’fclow, had rendered the same service for Chickering, Weber, and Knabe. But the impact of Paderewski on the American public was unprecedented in musical history up to that time. A number of factors besides pianism combined to create the hysterically happy reaction that James Huneker, the witty critic of the Musical Courier , quickly named Paddymania. On all levels of musical consciousness the young Polish visitor had taken over the country. While critics and scholars wrote exhaustive analyses of his technique and his interpretation of Beethoven, another, less critical segment of the population had instantly clasped him to itself with a singleminded enthusiasm no less intense or noisy than the Sinatra craze of the 1940’s or the Beatles passion of the past decade. Everything about the thirty-two-year-old pianist and his past history combined to inflame the collective female imagination of the United States: he was1 a widower with an invalid child; he was the patriotic son of a downtrodden nation; he was young and slim and muscular, with high Slavonic cheekbones and an aureole of red-gold hair that enchanted newspaper cartoonists as well as female music lovers. A great fuss was made in the press over the luxuriant locks of the visitor; they were a bonanza to minor poets, one of whom wrote for Philadelphia Music and Drama:
It was only a feather duster, But she worshipped it, she said, For its fascinating likeness To Paderewski ‘s head.
This sort of adulation greatly annoyed more serious Paderewski fans, particularly his fellow musicians. “Some call it hair,” composer Edward MacDowell remarked tartly. “I call it piano playing.”
During his first American season a year earlier a great mutual admiration had developed between Paderewski and Chicago. The pianist was awed by the sheer energy of the city; he called Chicago, Niagara Falls, and the Grand Canyon the three most amazing phenomena in the United States. Also, a lifelong musical friendship with Theodore Thomas and the Chicago Symphony had been established during their first appearance together on the concert stage.
During the winter of 1893 Thomas, as music director of the fair, had invited Paderewski, as Chicago’s favorite son among pianists, to appear at the two opening concerts of the exposition. Paderewski not only agreed to delay his return to Europe by a week in order to oblige but also offered to play without fee, for the greater glory of Chicago and the fair. The general rejoicing and good will occasioned by this arrangement lasted only until reporters, alert to the implications of the Piano War, asked Paderewski which brand of instrument he planned to play at the fair. A Steinway, of course, the pianist answered unequivocally, the same brand and the same piano he had been playing all season. Confronted with this statement, the director-general of the fair iterated his previous decision: no Steinway piano would ever see the inside of the World’s Columbian Exposition. A new wave of rumors and denials rolled through the press: Paderewski would play at the fair but he would not play a Steinway; Paderewski would play at the fair and he would play a Steinway, the officials having backed down; Paderewski would definitely not play at the fair, since the officials would never back down; Paderewski had never really been invited to play at the fair officially , the agreement having been cooked up between him and Thomas at a drunken stag dinner.
There was at least one man in Chicago whose plans remained absolutely impervious to the attendant hullaballoo. Theodore Thomas, exuding disdain through the entire length of his 5-foot-5-inch frame and muttering highly descriptive German epithets, went on planning the opening program (Paderewski would play his own piano concerto) and debating the cost of tickets (he was in favor of a dollar top but would concede a dollar and a half, fairground admission included).
On April 12 a newspaper advertisement for the pianist’s last regular Chicago recital announced: “Paderewski’s farewell to Chicago and positively last recital at Auditorium.” The last two words, superficially innocent, seemed weighted with significance. Why specify that his appearance was the last “at Auditorium” unless he were planning to play somewhere else in Chicago? The Chicago Tribune editorialized as follows: “If Mr. Paderewski cannot play in the new hall in Jackson Park except on some piano, the manufacturers of which withdrew their exhibits ... on account of petty spite, then there will be a general willingness to dispense with Mr. Paderewski’s playing entirely.”