One hundred and twenty years ago today, November 17, Polish piano great Ignacy Jan Paderewski made his US debut at Carnegie Hall. Performing with Walter Damrosch and the New York Symphony Orchestra, he played Saint-Säens’s Piano Concerto No. 4, the New York premiere of his own piano concerto, and solo works by Chopin, Liszt, and Rubinstein.
The New York Times reported that "no pianist has made such a sensational impression here since Anton Rubinstein." Paderewski proceeded to storm New York over the next two and a half months with a barrage of performances—no fewer than 11 solo piano recitals, eight performances with orchestras, and numerous benefits and private appearances—all part of a grueling 117-concert American tour.
That three of those 11 solo recitals took place on the main stage of Carnegie's Music Hall illustrates the interest concertgoers had in Paderewski. Before he arrived, no concert manager in New York City would have dreamed of booking any pianist into a 2,800-seat venue.
Paderewski's first five New York recitals were given at the 1,500-seat Madison Square Garden concert hall. Yet a month into his time in the city, demand was so high that Steinway, the sponsor of his tour, took a chance and booked him into the much larger Carnegie Hall. By the time of his 11th and final New York recital at the Hall on January 30, 1892—in a practice that continues to the present day—seats had to be added on stage to accommodate all of his adoring fans.
As strange as it may seem in a world dominated today by pop culture, Paderewski was the Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, or Justin Bieber of his day. Paderewski’s friend, Polish actress Helena Modjeska, wrote from New York to a friend in Warsaw: "Paderewski plays here with an enormous success. Women are crazy about him. Critics praise him without limits. The only two things they criticize is (sic) his performance of Beethoven and his too large of a mess of hair."
Although he was not universally beloved by music critics, most were also susceptible to Paderewski’s charms. In response to those who questioned his playing, one critic responded with typical late–19th-century hyperbole: “Away with all cynics! To perdition with the scoffers! Throw criticism to the dogs! Let us praise, applaud, and be merry, for tomorrow some other piano manufacturer will import a pianist who cannot play thus. Let us sound the loud timbrel of praise o’er Egypt’s dark sea of analysis. Great is Paderewski, and thank heaven for it!”
Paderewski went on to perform nearly 90 times at Carnegie Hall, his final concert being an all-Chopin recital on February 18, 1933. He died at the Hotel Buckingham—just up the street from Carnegie Hall, at the corner of 57th Street and Sixth Avenue—on June 29, 1941.
Portrait of Paderewski, autographed and dedicated to Walter Damrosch. Courtesy of the Carnegie Hall Archives.
Related: History of the Hall