Top Notes


In his memoirs Ignacy Jan Paderewski tells of a concert during which he learned a hard lesson about showmanship.

In 1890 Paderewski was making a name for himself as one of Europe’s leading pianists, but he discovered that when it came to exciting audiences, a performer needed more than musicianship. After successful performances in Paris, he was in the city of Tours participating in a concert in which he shared the billing with two singers and an actor, an arrangement that required Paderewski to regenerate his concentration and energy during the long intervals between his performances.

A lady singer began the concert, and then a popular actor did a comic monologue that revved up the audience. Next a tenor sang; a mediocre tenor who nonetheless had some impressive high notes that charged up the hall all the more.

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Then came Paderewski. He played a Chopin nocturne. He played it very well, but it was a subtle piece, without the thrill of topnotes.

“Nobody listened to me,” he recalled. “Nobody!”

The lady singer returned and wowed the crowd with trills and cadenzas. Then the actor came back out and repeated his success. The tenor followed, so-so as ever, but with more top notes that drove the audience wild.

After which it was time again for Paderewski, who was to play a series of short solos. In the wake of the excitement, the audience not only did not listen, they talked over his playing. The pianist’s only thought was to get through the concert and take the next train out of town.

Backstage, his fellow artists expressed their condolences to Paderewski for his failure. A local resident expressed his outrage at the barbarism of the audience, and, for years to come, attended every one of Paderewski’s Paris recitals, after which he greeted the acclaimed pianist with the words, “Well, my friend, this is a little different from Tours, is it not?”

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