- 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
While the possible guest soloist camped out on one part of the fairground, a series of increasingly urgent committee meetings were being held in another. The World’s Columbian Exposition, in addition to an excess of humidity, suffered from a plethora of committees that often worked at cross-purposes and just as often claimed jurisdiction over identical areas. A National Commission had been appointed by Congress several years before. Although its actual powers were only vaguely defined, it had never been shy about claiming authority over everything in sight. This commission now appointed a special Piano Committee to review the situation. The committee collected nine hours of assorted testimony. “We gave everybody a chance,” the chairman told the press after the first day of hearings. “Plan after plan was offered, but to each some objection was raised and we were unable to agree.” One of the more ingenious plans specified that several pianos, all products of the Loyal Exhibitors, be placed around the stage and that the artist be required to play on each at least once during the program.
On April 28 the National Commission convened early in plenary session, ready to act upon the forthcoming resolution. Hours passed, but the doors of the hearing room remained closed and locked. Not until late afternoon did the members of the Piano Committee finally elbow their way through the crowds in the corridor and march into the room where the full commission sat, weary, irritated, and ready to sign anything put before it. The committee, however, was not to be deprived of its moment in history. It proceeded to outline the entire course of its two-day deliberation, with special emphasis on the fact that Theodore Thomas had not shown up to testify, although expressly requested to do so. At last it presented the not unexpected resolution, rejecting the presence of any disloyal piano on the premises and demanding its removal—“at the point of a bayonet if necessary”— should it somehow sneak in. Allowed to vote at last, the commission adopted the resolution wholeheartedly in the happy but overoptimistic belief that the matter had been settled and civic pride vindicated.
But now, to the fury of the commission, a group known as the Chicago Directory—the local officials and businessmen who had really been running the show all along —stepped in and claimed a conflict of authority. The Chicago Directory’s president, George R. Peck, asked the National Commission’s president, Potter Palmer, to call a meeting of still another group, the more elite Boards of Reference and Control, for the following day at three o’clock in the afternoon.
Judicious stalling on the part of President Palmer delayed the meeting for five hours. But at eight o’clock, when the Boards of Reference and Control finally arrived, it was voted to meet in the next room for private debate. This so outraged President Palmer and his henchmen that they made the grave mistake of bolting the meeting in a huff. Once they were out of the way the Boards got together with the Chicago Directory and voted to refer the whole thing to still another outfit—the Council of Administration—the next day.
The next day, of course, was opening day itself, and the Council of Administration was much too busy escorting Grover Cleveland around the grounds to worry about pianos. At last, on May 2, with the opening concert, a matinee performance, just a few hours away, the council met and handed down its decision. It was a masterpiece of diplomacy, though not of accuracy.
That afternoon the Musical Courier reporter sent this telegram to his New York office: P ADEREWSKI PLAYING ON S TEINWAY P IANO . T HE OFFICIALS NOW ASSERT THAT M USIC H ALL IS A SEPARATE INSTITUTION NOT CONNECTED WITH THE F AIR . The Council of Administration, cribbing from an interview that Paderewski himself had given to the music critic of the New York Post , added an obiter dictum to the effect that if a violinist played at the fair, no one would ask him to check his violin at the door and play one of the instruments on display in the Musical Instruments section. As a last effort of good will toward the Loyal Exhibitors, the council announced that it would tell Theodore Thomas to put some loyal pianos in the Music Hall and use them at rehearsals.
Thus the inaugural concerts of the Columbian Exposition were played as scheduled. Was it really worth all the trouble? Paderewski was exhausted from his lakeside adventures and was playing in spite of a painfully infected finger. A brisk wind whistled through the unfinished window frames, while the dampness that had accumulated in the hall throughout the winter nearly froze audience, orchestra, and artist alike. The next day, even as the second Paderewski concert was in progress, the befuddled National Committee members met once again and tried for five hours to figure out what had happened. They never did.