Paderewski: The Original PR Genius from 19th-Century Poland
default, gettyimages-517198390.jpg, Paderewski caricature from 1900. Photo: Getty Images , center
The classical pianist Ignacy Jan Paderewski was unprecedentedly idolised in the 19th century. It turns out that it was not just his music, but his business acumen and sales intuition that helped him become a superstar the likes of which the world had never seen. It also helped change the history of Poland.
You can also hear about the fascinating life of Paderewski and how he helped the Polish national cause on our podcast Stories From The Eastern West:
Remember the scenes of hysteria associated with the early days of rock’n’roll? Screaming fans going wild, attempting to touch their idols, and sometimes even getting undressed in the process. But all of this had happened much earlier than the 1950s and accompanied the concerts of a musician representing a rather different genre.
Yes, before Elvis, the Beatles, and Michael Jackson there was Ignacy Jan Paderewski… and the phenomenon of ‘paddymania’. How did a musician from a backwater in Eastern Europe become the first global celebrity of popular culture? What were the sources of his mesmerising effect on people? Was Paderewski just a brilliant pianist – or can we now admit that he also possessed business, sales and PR skills?
A star is born
When was this modern Paderewski cult or craze born? Just like Beatlesmania decades later, it was in England, very likely on 15th June 1890. On this day, in London’s Saint James’s Hall, the 30-year-old pianist from Poland was about to give the third of his contracted concerts. Paderewski, a pupil of the famous Teodor Leszetycki, had spent the last couple of years touring European cities but his fame was far from firmly established. And this was only his first British tour… Suffice to say, the previous two had met with moderate reception from both critics and audience. One of the critics had even referred to him as a ‘blacksmith of the piano’, rather than a genius virtuoso.
But on that day it was to be different. In front of the building, a couple hundred young women had gathered in anticipation of the arrival of the great pianist. As historian Ludwik Stomma writes:
Ignacy Jan Paderewski
When Paderewski appeared in the entrance, the crowd was taken over by hysteria. Young townswomen of London, whom normally one would not have suspected even a shade of temperament, were now pushing towards the staircase, trampling each other, and shouting: ‘Take us! We belong to you! We are yours!’ Next, they pulled up their skirts to reveal frivolous underwear with the name of their idol embroidered next to a red heart. For the sake of public morals, the police had to intervene.
After the concert, people rushed to the stage throwing flowers at the pianist, some of them were trying to touch him or kiss his hand. As Adam Zamoyski, a biographer of the artist, notes, something like this had happened only once before, in Paris. But from this day on, this was to be the new norm. Another concert on 11th July, whose programme comprised entirely of pieces by Chopin, was met with one of the wildest scenes of enthusiasm ever witnessed at Saint James’s Hall. Newspapers reported about an extraordinary public manifestation and a pianist who was literally attacked by the crowd.
Scenes like this would later repeat themselves numerous times, reaching unprecedented heights.
Paddymania takes America
But the real ‘Paddymania’ erupted in America the following year. It was actually there that the term ‘Paddymania’ was coined (in America, Paderewski was called ‘Paddyroosky’ or simply ‘Paddy’).
After three opening concerts with the orchestra, Paderewski started giving solo performances. He was the first pianist to perform solo at the New Music Hall (later known as Carnegie Hall) where he played in front of a sold-out crowd of 3,700 people. Once again, following one of the concerts, the audience (mostly women) burst onto stage, successfully preventing Paderewski from leaving the venue. In Chicago, Paderewski set another record – this time he played in front of 4,000 people. This first tour in America ended up as 107 concerts in just 117 days.
Paderewski returned to America the following year (all in all, over his whole career he toured America 50 times). Again, people went crazy for Paderewski. Special trains were organised to transport the audiences to his concerts. In New York, police would have to close entire streets in the areas where Paderewski was expected to visit. The police would cordon off his hotel on 5th Avenue day and night. People flocked to box offices to buy tickets, arriving early in the morning many hours before the concert. Nothing like this had ever been seen before.
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An important part of the Paddymania phenomenon was the mesmerising effect the pianist had on women – especially young women, who would usually make up a large part of the audience. These young girls suffering from severe cases of Paddymania soon earned a name of their own: the ‘Paderewski girls’. The youngest enthusiasts were referred to as ‘matinee girls’ (as they preferred to attend daytime concerts). Today, we would identify them as ‘fans’ or ‘groupies’, but these words would not enter the public lexicon until decades later.
As one critic who attended a performance said: ‘There I was, simply girled in! A huge and dominant gynarchy seethed around me’. Another remarked that ‘the long-haired pianist has such an effect on New York women as a jar of confiture has on children in the orphanage’.
Paderewski’s concerts were especially famous for their magnetic atmosphere and provided tension that could be almost called sexual. One of the reporters who went to several Paderewski concerts recalled ‘a mysterious current’ in the room, ‘as though an invisible force had united Paderewski and his feminine adorers’.
What was this mesmerising effect all about? One of the female participants of the concerts was quoted as saying:
He makes my heart stand still, my blood to flow from my heart as he wills it; he sets me on fire; he chills me. He is my master.
In fact, the sexual element in Paderewski’s success, as Adam Zamoyski writes, was exploited to the hilt: ‘From the start there had been, as with Liszt and Paganini, serious over-reaction on the part of women to his playing, and it was reported with glee’. Indeed the first pages of the newspapers were full of reports about frenetic girls going crazy at musical matinees. Soon Paddymania reached new heights, as three New York ladies embroidered musical phrases from his Minuet onto their stockings.
Music for brutes
As with much of the later rock’n’roll phenomenon, Paddymania was just as much about the music as the person who personified it. Paderewski soon became an object of desire... and sometimes assault. In the US, one fan attacked Paderewski with a pair of scissors to snip a lock of his hair. (Appeals for locks of his hair were constant from fans throughout his whole career – as the story goes, his wife would often send them the hair of their little dog).
Another time, despite great security measures and the constant presence of bodyguards, one of his fans managed to get hired as a waitress at a hotel where Paderewski was staying. She succeeded in bringing him breakfast to his room, while also having managed to get rid of all her clothes in the adjacent room. It seems Paderewski was experiencing some of the inconveniences of a rockstar life some 50 years before the term ‘rockstar’ existed.
Paddymania was something hardly explicable in the sociological terms of the era. In looking for explanations, the critics went for the most outrageous. One of them suggested that Paderewski’s music caused hysteria because so many of his audience members were ‘devoid of musical tastes, perceptions and training’. In that reporter’s view, people without musical training were incapable of appreciating ‘melodious harmonies’, but they did feel music’s emotional effect in the vibrations of their nerves:
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upon string instruments will so work upon the nerves of brute creatures that they will utter peculiar cries and yelps.
In this, the critic may well have anticipated some of the later explanations put forward to explain the effect of rock’n’roll music on young audiences. And yet despite experiencing some of the fame typical of rock stars (as well as elements of their lifestyle), Paderewski certainly was not playing rock’n’roll. What was it then?
The master of self-promotion
Paderewski was surely a great pianist, but already during his time there were artists of comparable, or perhaps even greater, talent or stature, like Anton Rubinstein. So what was it about Paderewski that enabled him to reach such unprecedented heights of popularity? One possible answer, offered by Ludwik Stomma, is that Paderewski was simply the first genius of marketing – that is self-promotion.
Stomma suggests this had already started in 1885 when the 25-year-old up-and-coming artist was about to give a concert in Vienna. Before the concert, Paderewski distributed leaflets in the busiest parts of the city, which on one side featured a portrait of his head with his signature hair, and excerpts from enthusiastic reviews on the other. One of them said: ‘His music is at once intimate and universal, for this is the music of angels’. Nobody knew that the sentence had been taken from a local newspaper in Kraków and was written by an admirer with no musical expertise whatsoever.
In conservative Vienna, this kind of brazen marketing campaign was met with harsh criticism. One of the leading critics of the period, Theofil van Hassen, stated publicly:
Manru – Ignacy Jan Paderewski
If that man advertises himself the way one would advertise a sausage, then clearly his pianist skills must be those of a butcher.
This, of course, did not discourage Paderewski. By the time he arrived in Paris for another series of concerts, he had already prepared another slogan: ‘The artist who filled the halls of Vienna’. After France, he set off for England where he was advertised as a ‘Parisian lion’.
Selling the image of an angel
Lawrence Alma-Tadema, Portrait of Ignacy Jan Paderewski, 1890, oil on canvas, Photo. Krzysztof Wilczyński © Muzeum Narodowe w Warszawie
Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1836–1912), Portret Ignacego Jana Paderewskiego
1890, olej na płótnie, wys. 45,5, szer. 59 cm, fot. Krzysztof Wilczyński © Muzeum Narodowe w Warszawie
Right from the onset of his career, Paderewski was also very conscious about creating and managing his public image. As the scholar Maja Trochimczyk shows, the artist consciously cultivated his appearance and structured his recitals and repertoire to maximise the emotional impact on his audiences.
For a long time, the public appearance of Paderewski was all about an ‘astoundingly beautiful young archangel’, an ‘immortal’ with a golden aureole of hair. As Trochimczyk shows, this image of an archangelic immortal was originally coined by Helena Modrzejewska (also known as Modjeska) in 1884 in Zakopane, where the two met for the first time. The famous Polish actress remembered him with ‘an aureole of profuse golden hair and delicate, almost feminine features’. She also observed that:
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He looked like one of Botticelli’s or Fra Angelico’s angels, and he seemed so deeply wrapped up in his music that this intensity was almost hypnotic. [...] His poetic face, combined with his genius, was bound to produce brilliant results.
Paderewski seemed to take Modjeska’s lessons to heart.
He grew his hair, changed his style of clothing (after the death of his first wife favouring dark jackets with white shirts and neckties), and became a living embodiment of an image of an inspired, spiritual and sensuous artist.
Trochimczyk also shows how this vision of Modjeska, which originally arose in connection with her fascination with Aestheticism and the pre-Raphaelite movement, materialised several years later in the most famous portraits of Paderewski. These were painted by two of the most influential members of the British Pre-Raphaelite and Aestheticism movements – and, they just so happened to be, Modjeska’s friends – Edward Burne-Jones and Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema.
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Both images were created around 1890, during Paderewski’s British tour – that precise moment when ‘the phenomenon of “the immortal Paderewski” – a charismatic virtuoso surrounded by the adulation of crowds of his female listeners – emerged in Western Europe’.
Both of them show Paderewski as a delicate young man with a halo of hair, and were later reproduced numerous times shaping the public image of the ‘angelic pianist’. As Trochimczyk shows, the Burne Jones’ representation showing Paderewski ‘facing away from the spectator, and looking wistful, poetic, formed the cornerstone of his marketing to female audiences’. Copies of the drawing repeatedly appeared in the pianist’s marketing literature.
The persistence of that image can be seen on a 1915 cover of The Etude piano magazine. ‘Alas,’ as Trochimczyk finds, ‘the image was more than a bit outdated: in 1915, Paderewski was fifty-five, not twenty years old.’ In fact, The Etude ran another cover with the same image even later in 1934 – Paderewski was by then 74.
Paderewski sticked to the ‘angelic’ image long after he had stopped looking like a cherub and long after his hair stopped being flaming red (he continued to dye it). It was only during World War I, as Trochimczyk argues, that Paderewski emerged as a white-haired statesman. As Trochimczyk concludes:
With his keen business sense, he knew how to convert the image of a golden archangel into gold.
Businessman & salesman
Unlike many other great contemporary pianists, Paderewski was also a great businessman and salesman. As his fame grew, his name started appearing on all kinds of merchandise: from soaps and creams with the words ‘We love Paddy’ written on them, to shampoos made according to the ‘Paderewski formula’, to oatmeals with his name, candies and Paddy-shaped lollipops, even Louis Vuitton suitcases – Paderewski advertised them all. There was even a mechanical toy of a little man with huge hair sitting at a piano shaking his head and hitting the piano with his hands. While Paderewski didn’t run any of these businesses, he certainly profited from them.
Soon enough, he became a very rich man. But he also immediately understood that in America being rich was not a reason to be ashamed but rather something that people respected and looked up to. His ostentatiously lavish lifestyle coupled with the rhetorics of a self-made man became part of his public image – both proof of his success and part of his strategy.
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But while Paderewski may have been a great businessman, a brilliant manager of his own image, and a master of self-promotion, he still had one more asset. This asset was Poland.
In fact, throughout all this time Paderewski was running another – perhaps the biggest and most successful – marketing campaign ever run by one person. That campaign was carried out on many fields. In the field of art, the music played at Paderewski’s concerts was used as a tool of emotional pressure on his audiences (one could say he had hired another of his compatriots for this task: Fryderyk Chopin).
Wherever he would go, he used any opportunity to bring up the Polish national cause. And when he did not talk, he had other ‘vehicles’ to expound his narrative, like his private train cart, which he used in America, bearing the two huge ancient Polish coats of arms and the name ‘Polonia’.
His fame and popularity, along with his cultured presence, enabled him to bend the ears of the most powerful people on Earth, and to push the Polish agenda with them. He was indefatigable in raising support and money for Polish (and other) charity causes. Some of his projects had tremendous symbolic potential, like the so-called Grunwald Monument, erected in 1910 in Kraków, which he envisioned and helped fund.
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ignacy jan paderewski
Similarly, during the war, Paderewski’s role was crucial in forming a Polish army abroad. His diplomatic efforts and personal contact with President Woodrow Wilson of the USA is directly credited with the latter’s decision to bring Poland into his Fourteen Points, the plan which laid out a post-war vision for Europe.
Paderewski was a one-man think tank, a foundation against defamation, a fund-raising institution, a Polish embassy abroad, and a living monument to and proof of the immaculate public image of Poland.
The objective of this campaign was reached on 11th November 1918, when Poland, after a hiatus of some 123 years, regained its independence. Paderewski’s role on the path to that historical moment can hardly be overestimated. Little wonder then, that in January of the next year, Paderewski became prime minister of the new state – thus opening another chapter in his life, that of the superstar-turned-politician.
This adventure only ended up lasting less than a year. Still, Paderewski remained an active player in Polish political life, even in the 1930s after he withdrew to his house in Switzerland. As Stomma argues, he was bestowed with a truly amazing gift for using new media. In 1937, towards the end of his life, he tried yet another role: that of film actor in Lothar Mendes’s film Moonlight Sonata. The film was a great success and so was Paderewski. It seems being successful was something Paderewski was always good at.
Written by: Mikołaj Gliński, 18 January 2018.