The Great Chicago Piano War

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But it was on the sturdy head of Theodore Thomas that most of the blame for the impasse was heaped. Even the New York-based Musical Courier rolled up its sleeves and joined the slugfest: “He is an overbearing boor,” wrote the reporter sent out to cover the Chicaero story. “There are some men interested in music who simply refuse to enter into any possible contact with Theodore Thomas, simply as a matter of taste and self-respect.” The sinister newspaper ad of April 12 once more brought the Loyal Exhibitors to the office of the director-general, who promptly ordered the posters bearing Paderewski’s name torn down and removed from the fairground. Up to this time the principal actor in the drama had had relatively little to say, partly out of a certain confusion as to exactly what all the fuss was about. It was an editorial in the New York World that finally stung him into print. The World wrote: “The determination of the World’s Fair directors not to allow Paderewski to play a Steinway piano may be rather small business for World’s Fair directors, but it is certainly not very generous on Mr. Paderewski’s part to sell himself to a piano firm. It sounds as if Mr. Paderewski was less of a world’s than a Steinway artist.”

In a letter to the editor dated April 28 Paderewski firmly replied that he was not under contract to play any specific brand of piano. “Throughout the wide world,” he added, “any artist is permitted to use the instrument of his choice, and I do not understand why I should be forced to play an instrument of a manufacturer strange to me and untried by me, which might jeopardize my artistic success.” Appended to this letter was a short note signed “Steinway & Sons,” underscoring the pianist’s remarks. “Permit us to state,” it read, “that we have no contract of any kind whatsoever with Mr. Paderewski, who is at liberty to follow his own artistic inclinations and preferences as to the use of an instrument best adapted to his requirement.”

The fact that Paderewski was not under contract to play Steinway pianos and, therefore, presumably played them only as a matter of artistic conviction was indeed a large mark in the Steinway plus column. Fortunately for the general decorum of the situation, no one leaked to the press a quotation from a document that had been resting quietly in the offices of Steinway & Sons for exactly one year and one month. It was dated March 28, 1892, and had been signed by the interested parties at the conclusion that year of Paderewski’s first American tour. Its third clause stated flatly (in translation from the German): “Mr. Paderewski promises that during his stay on the North American continent, he will play only . . . pianos of the House of Steinway & Sons, New York, that he will not use any pianos of any other American piano manufacturer, nor give any testimonials for any other pianos.”

What is the answer? Were the Steinway brothers, those outstanding men of probity and civic leadership, really barefaced liars? Hardly. But the business practices of the era were as cutthroat and free-swinging as the techniques of its journalism, and one would have to admit that as the leaders of a most competitive industry they were extremely sharp businessmen. They were also linguists whose ears were finely tuned to the delicate shades of meaning of the German language. At the top of the document setting forth the conditions of the Paderewski tour was not the word Kontrakt but the word Übereinkommen : an agreement. A gentleman’s agreement. And since it was not the sort ofthing that any gentleman, least of all the generous Steinways, would ever enforce on an artist against his will, why not simply forget about it altogether? Thus honor was saved, and neither the newspapers nor the Chicago piano men ever knew what a story they had missed.

Determined to see the fair whether he played at it or not, Paderewski left for Chicago at the end of April. “The grounds of the World’s Fair were like a huge camp,” he wrote nearly half a century later in his Memoirs . “All the men who were directing those colossal preparations were practically living (really camping) there on the spot. . . . Everything was in great disorder. . . . There was humidity everywhere, coming not only from the neighboring lake, but from the dampness of the buildings. The committee invited me to stay there and it was certainly a unique experience. ... It was something fantastic in its discomfort. But the strangeness and adventure of it all appealed to me.”