Jan Ignacy Paderewski

Maestro Paderewski (pronounce the w like a v), 1860-1941, had four great passions: Poland, the piano, people, and his second wife, social activist Helena Paderewska. In each case, Paderewski’s love, hard work, and commitment—as well as his famous charm—allowed him to overcome huge barriers, traumas, and disappointments. His life can be viewed as a model of resilience.


Paderewski’s mother died a few months after he was born, in a Polish village under the oppressive rule of Russia. The child grew very attached to his father. In his memoir, he describes his horrific memories as a three-year-old of his father’s arrest in connection with the January Uprising, a widespread failed attempt to regain Polish independence. The event, and his father’s explanation of it to him, birthed Polish patriotism in the little boy.

Many long years later, through years of investment which included persuasion of the American public through his popularity there, leading to a critical meeting with President Woodrow Wilson and a tremendous amount of work behind the scenes, Polish independence was finally achieved in 1919. Paderewski was appointed Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs. Wikipedia describes his achievements in the first year like this:

“Paderewski’s government achieved remarkable milestones in just ten months: democratic elections to Parliament, ratification of the Treaty of Versailles, passage of the treaty on protection of ethnic minorities in the new state and the establishment of a public education system. It also tackled border disputes, unemployment, ethnic and social strife, the outbreak of epidemics and averted the looming famine after the devastation of war. After the elections, Paderewski resigned as prime minister but continued to represent Poland abroad at international conferences and at the League of Nations. Thanks to his diplomatic skills (he was the only delegate who was not assigned a translator since he was fluent in seven languages) and great personal esteem, Poland was able to negotiate thorny issues with its Ukrainian and German neighbors and gain international respect in the process.”

In 1922, Paderewski returned to his music, having helped achieve for Poland much of what he had longed for since he was a child. After the Nazis invaded Poland in 1939, setting off World War II, he returned to public life, heading the exiled National Council of Poland in London and again appealing to the American people for help. Over one hundred radio stations in the United States and Canada carried his broadcast, and many contributed to his Polish Relief Fund. He played many concerts to raise money for this cause, until his death from pneumonia in 1941 while on tour in New York City.

The Piano:

Paderewski loved music from the time he was a child. His father and aunt did their best to nurture this interest, finally sending him to study at the Warsaw Conservatory at age 12. In his memoir, Paderewski describes how bereft and homesick he felt, and his difficulty focusing on his music when he felt so alone in a strange place. I used this experience to influence his decision about Charlie in Horse Thief 1898.

Though threatened several times with expulsion, Paderewski did finally graduate from the Warsaw Conservatory in 1878, at age 18. He became a tutor at the Conservatory and soon married a fellow student there, Antonina Korsakowna. She died in 1880, never recovering from childbirth. Their son, Alfred, was born severely handicapped. Dear friends offered to care for Alfred so Paderewski could earn a living for him through his music.

Paderewski’s efforts to establish himself as a musician were all directed toward supporting his beloved child, whom he visited whenever he could. He describes his anguish in his memoir. He found a patron in 1884 in the person of a famous Polish actress, Helena Modrzejewska, who sponsored a series of joint concerts to raise funds for his further study. He moved to Vienna, then Strasbourg, then Paris, where Alfred was cared for by another Helena, whom he married in 1899. Alfred died in 1901.

Meanwhile, Paderewski had become one of the most well-known and beloved concert pianists in history. Following acclaim in Paris and London, his first tour in the United States, in 1891, led to more than thirty American tours over the next fifty years. His name became synonymous with the highest levels of piano virtuosity, and his audiences adored him. He used his popularity and charisma to advance his political and charitable work.

In 1891, on his first American tour, Paderewski was the first to give a concert in the new Carnegie Hall. That first tour almost broke him, though. At the insistence of his sponsors, he played 107 concerts in 117 days. In so doing he seriously damaged his arm and the fourth finger of his right hand and never fully recovered. For much of this tour, he played using only four fingers of his right hand instead of five. The pain he suffered was excruciating. His audiences, wildly enthusiastic about his music, never knew what it cost him. For the rest of his career, he had to take time off periodically to restore his finger to functionality. He used those periods to compose his own music.


Paderewski had a gift for making friends. He loved people, and they loved him back. Remembering his own early struggles, he invested heavily in mentoring young musicians, who not only profited from his technical training but loved him for his personal care for them. Charlie’s experience as his protégé in Horse Thief 1898 is based on Paderewski’s real-life relationships with those he took under his wing, giving to them the love he had for his own child, Alfred.

Stories are told about people traveling long distances to attend Paderewski’s concerts, only to discover they were sold out. When he learned about such instances, the maestro allowed people to come backstage and listen from there. As wealthy as he became, he never forgot his early poverty, and treated people everywhere with great kindness. He funded students of music at institutions around the world, as well as orphanages and many other charities.

Madame Paderewska:

Until her death in 1936, Helena Paderewska, child of the Polish nobility, gave her busy husband unstinting support, managing many of his charitable efforts and often traveling with him. She first won his heart through her loving care of Alfred in Paris. Paderewski describes in detail in his memoir his admiration and love for her. Since she only appears incidentally in Horse Thief 1898, I won’t go into detail about her here, but there are many sources of information should you wish to know more.

I hope you will enjoy Jan Ignacy Paderewski as I portray him in Horse Thief 1898!