Edward Burne-Jones, in his quaint, pre-Raphaelite way, registered one of the most striking reactions to Ignace Jan Paderewski. He passed the young pianist on a London street one day in 1890, not knowing who he was, and began telling his friends he had seen an archangel. He was only one of Paderewski's admirers and his point of view was rather specialized. Other admirers, equally specialized, included Lloyd George and Benito Mussolini, Joseph Conrad and George Bernard Shaw, Camille Saint-Saens and Gabriel Faure'.
All admired Paderewski as a musician -- particularly as a pianist and sometimes as a composer. Some were especially impressed by his striking good looks, which are well-documented in the extensive pictorial section of Adam Zamoyski's biography -- including the archangelic vision of Burne-Jones.
None who knew Paderewski personally could fail to be impressed by his character. "On meeting him," Zamoyski sums up at the end of his book, "people felt themselves to be in the presence of an altogether superior being, and since this was the twentieth century and not the Middle Ages, they dubbed him not a saint but a genius." The author concludes (his judgment undisturbed by Paderewski's in-person magnetism) that he was not quite either; rather, "He was a knight errant, a man who had made his own the traditions of his forefathers and wanted, passionately, to do good in a world that was full of wrongs."
Above all, he was, of course, a musician -- one who became a legend on the level of Caruso or Toscanini. But some of the most important and fascinating scenes in his life took place not in concert halls but at the Paris Conference convened to pick up the pieces after World War I. His biography is that of an artist who made women faint and strong men weep, but also that of Poland's prime minister in the crucial year 1919, when he convened that country's first sovereign parliament since the 18th century and represented its interests with great skill but mixed results in the peace negotiations. Paderewski "was a greater statesman than he was a musician," according to Robert Lansing, who was Woodrow Wilson's secretary of state. But he was also a victim of circumstances -- and his country along with him -- nearly helpless in negotiating against the great powers' ignorance of history and conditions in Eastern Europe, the indifference of Lloyd George, the callous manipulations of Clemenceau, the "breathtaking political innocence" of Wilson.
Paderewski might have made a good king, but he lacked the routine, rough-and-tumble political skills of a parliamentary leader. He launched his country on a turbulent, 30-year quest for its rightful place among nations but died after those aspirations had been crushed, once again, by Hitler. In the final years of his musical career, many in his audience may have come simply to be in his presence, not to hear the music. Zamoyski sums up his stature in those final years succinctly: "He may no longer have been the greatest pianist, but, as one critic put it, he was still the greatest person who was a pianist."
Musically as well as politically, his life was not one of unvaried triumphs. He took Paris by storm in 1888, but his debut in London two years later was much cooler -- perhaps partly because he had been advertised as "The Lion of Paris." In Berlin his first concert was a success, but then he turned down an offer from the city's most powerful manager and everything went wrong in later concerts; orchestras would not play well for him and the critics suddenly hated him. Sometimes, even pianos turned against him. On his first American tour in 1891 and 1892, a technician hardened the action unexpectedly on his specially chosen Steinway and he injured a finger of his right hand. A doctor told him he had to take a complete rest, but he refused to do that in mid-tour. Instead, he accustomed himself to "the constant and terrifying pain in my arm" and "learned to play with four fingers only of my right hand." It was even worse on an 1899 tour of Russia. Checking out his chosen instrument a half-hour before his recital, "he found that one of the pedals had been neatly sawn through so that it would break off at the first pressure. Further examination revealed pins sticking up between the keys in such a way as to cause horrible injury to anyone striking a chord . . . This turned out to be the work of a local piano-manufacturer who was incensed that his instruments were not being used."
Recordings are probably no kinder to him than those pianos were; those who heard him in person have said records could not capture his full impact, and yet Zamoyski notes -- justly -- that "greatness certainly comes through the hiss and crackle of Paderewski's recordings, which reveal not only the power, the delicacy and the astonishing fingerwork of which he was capable, but also a profound, thoughtful, majestic and sensuous understanding of the music he played."
Zamoyski's biography includes the gee-whiz elements that are mandatory in any biography of a musical star: packed halls and reckless critical superlatives; demands (brilliantly fulfilled) for a dozen encores; backstage amours and visits with the crowned heads of Europe; audiences storming the stage and showering it not only with flowers but with hurled hats and umbrellas. Since it is Paderewski's life, it has these elements in higher concentration than most others -- and the subject cultivated a mystique that made a biographer's task more difficult. "He was secretive and confided in very few people; they have confided in nobody," the biographer confides in his introduction. " . . . His own memoirs and the two biographies published, with his blessing, during his life provide an 'official version,' which tells us very little about the man himself and invites a degree of scepticism. The figure which emerges is dull, conventional and lifeless and Paderewski was certainly none of these."
He is certainly none of these in this biography, from his boyhood when a tutor inspired him to "become somebody" and "to help Poland," to his death scene, when he asked for a glass of champagne, drank it and slipped peacefully into his final sleep. He was buried in Arlington National Cemetery with the understanding that his body would someday be moved to a free Poland, and he lies there still, after 41 years, only a few miles away from the Steinway that once injured his finger, which is now owned by the Smithsonian, played regularly and helping to perpetuate his mystique