The pianist that became Prime Minister

Ignacy Jan Paderewski

  • Woodrow Wilson
  • Irving Berlin
  • Józef Ignacy Kraszewski
  • Alfred Nossig
  • Henry Edward Krehbiel

Many factors contributed to Poland regaining its independence in 1918. Certainly, US diplomatic support played a key role in this success. The main spokesman for Polish independence in America was Ignacy Jan Paderewski (1860–1941), a prominent Polish pianist and composer who managed to convince President Woodrow Wilson (1856-1924) of the idea’s benefits. Paderewski toured the US more than 30 times over five decades. He enjoyed enormous popularity in the country. In the song I Love a Piano, which was composed by Irving Berlin (1888-1989) and recorded in 1916, the narrator says:

And with the pedal, I love to meddle,
When Paderewski comes this way.
I'm so delighted, when I'm invited.
To hear that long-haired genius play.

Berlin was an American composer and lyricist of Jewish origin and is widely considered one of the greatest songwriters in US history. His music forms a great part of the Great American Songbook, a canon of early 20th century popular songs and jazz standards from the country. Berlin’s family came from a shtetl in the Vitebsk region, which is today located in eastern Belarus. His father, a cantor in a synagogue, decided to take his family to America, as did many other Jewish families in the late 19th century. US President William Taft stated that Paderewski’s “musical genius has the highest poetic feeling”.

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A stamp printed in USA showing portrait of Ignacy Jan Paderewski, Champions of Liberty Series, Source: Shutterstock  

America eventually became Paderewski’s second home. On the eve of the First World War and at the height of his fame, Paderewski even decided to settle in the United States. He then bought a huge property in California’s Central Coast region. A decade later, he planted Zinfandel vines on this property. It is still one of the most famous wineries located between Los Angeles and San Francisco. In 1918, Paderewski returned to Poland and became the new nation’s prime minister and foreign minister. During his tenure in office, he signed the Treaty of Versailles, which ended the First World War.

Paderewski was born into a Polish noble family in the village of Kurilivka in Podolia, Ukraine, where he grew up. After many years he declared that the village “was one of the most wonderful places in the world”. From childhood he was exposed to a repertoire of Ukrainian folk songs. Józef Ignacy Kraszewski (1812-1887), a prominent Polish novelist whose work later became a source of inspiration for Paderewski, described these songs as “if they had run out of words, they paint the state of mind, histories, longing, resignation, tearful happiness and often smiling sadness in such a way that their very melody speaks directly to the soul”. The influence of Ukrainian folk music can be witnessed in many of the compositions Paderewski created throughout his life. This interest in Ukrainian music, however, did not discourage Paderewski from presenting Ukrainians, who after the First World War fought with the Poles for control of Eastern Galicia, in a very negative light in his correspondence with Wilson.

Manru, Source: Muzeum Narodowe w Warszawie

Manru, Source: Muzeum Narodowe w Warszawie

Manru is the only opera composed by Paderewski. It is based on the novel A Hut Behind the Village, which was published by Józef Ignacy Kraszewski in 1843. The book belongs to the folk-novel genre and depicts discrimination against the Roma in Volhynia, Ukraine. A Hut Behind the Village is one of Kraszewski’s most widely read novels. He was born in Warsaw to a noble family from Polesia, Belarus. He lived in Volhynia for 20 years. The libretto of Manru was written originally in German by Alfred Nossig (1864–1943), a Jewish-Polish musician, sculptor, public activist, and writer born to a wealthy family in Lviv. His worldview evolved from initially supporting Jewish assimilation into the Polish nation to Zionism, a Jewish modern nationalism. Nossig changed the plot of Kraszewski’s novel, making the Carpathian Mountains the main setting of the opera. The American premiere of a version of Manru sung in English took place on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera in 1902. It initially received an enthusiastic reception, with the premiere marked as “one of high distinction”. Manru remains to this day the only Polish opera to ever be presented at the Metropolitan Opera. Henry Edward Krehbiel (1854–1923) translated the libretto into English. He was a prolific American music critic and musicologist who was music editor for The New York Tribune for more than forty years. He belonged to the first generation of American critics that created a uniquely American school of criticism. Paderewski found shelter in the US during the Second World War, when Poland was occupied by Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia. He passed away in New York and was buried at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia. His remains were transferred to Warsaw and placed in the city’s cathedral after the fall of communism.