John Robilette | Concert Pianist, Cultural Diplomat
Polish Embassy in Washington, 2006.


  • “...a concert artist of the first rank.”
    High Fidelity Magazine
    New York, NY
    August, 1987
  • “John Robilette, earnest and mild-mannered young pianist performed elegantly, smoothly, and effectively in the concerto (Beethoven No. 4).”
    Wisconsin State Journal
    Madison, Wisconsin
    July 28, 1969
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You are here: Writings

Paderewski Speech

Given by John Robilette
Polish Embassy, Washington, DC
June 23, 2006
Those of you who are over the age of fifty may remember the year 1959. During that year, the poet, Carl Sandburg, addressed a joint a joint sessions of the congress on the subject of Abraham Lincoln. But he said something that was equally applicable to Ignace Jan Paderewski. “Seldom does one enter into human history,” he said, “with a heart that is as hard as tempered steel, yet as soft as a summer’s breeze.” In other words, a duality. On the one hand, compassion, conscience and a solidarity with the concerns of others, while on the other, a strength and discipline to do hard things regardless of the pain. It was said that Paderewski was like a wild animal, with a suave gentleness combined with a masculine rigidity, yet possessed of an almost feminine softness of nature. These are the attributes of an artist, since art must draw all of the disparate elements of life unto itself. But it is also the definition of a leader.

Now, a thumbnail sketch of Paderewski’s life.

At twenty years of age, he was insignificant in the eyes of the world. He had never been a child prodigy, and the piano was not his only interest, but also composition. When he graduated from the Warsaw Conservatory, it was not with any meteoric accomplishments. Nevertheless, he had his supporters and they gave him a position as an instructor, whereupon he promptly married one of his students, a woman four years his senior by the name of Antonina Korsak. Paderewski now made a decision to live out the remainder of his life quietly, as a teacher, composer and family man. And his pride and exuberance were increased when his wife become with child, giving birth to a son ten months after the marriage. But, tragically, the birth was difficult, the infant was born deformed, and the mother died nine days later from complications. So at twenty, Paderewski’s life was shattered. He gave his wife’s meager dowry to a trust in Warsaw to help in his mother-in-law’s raising of the child, and then left for Germany to change his life and study composition. He remains abroad off and on for four years; he is now twenty four years of age. Then, during a vacation in Zakopane, Poland, the famous Polish actress (famous also in this country in the 1880’s for Sheakespeare), Helena Modejska, hears him play informally on the piano some of his own compositions. She sees something in him, something about him, and says that he MUST be a pianist, that he must study with the greatest teacher in the world, Theodor Leschetitzky, and she will make it possible. And she does. But after Leschetitzky hears him, he says, “Paderewski, it is too late for you to be a great pianist. Your fingers lack the discipline that they should have received in your formative years. “But undeterred, Paderewski begins his studies with a zeal that astounds the old man, practicing long hours each day, absorbing every detail and transforming himself into a virtuoso. This goes on for a number of years until Leschetitzky finally says it is time for his debut. It is arranged in Paris at a place then called the Sale Erard. And Leschetitzky’s wife arranges for the cream of the French musical life to attend.

Names like: Camille Saint-Saens, Vincent D’indy, Gabriel Faure, and even the young piano student Alfred Cortot was there. Paderewski mounts the stage… he is nervous, anxious and insecure. He is moving toward thirty years of age. But that debut, even today, is considered one of the most deliriously successful ones in the annals of music history. Le Monde, the great French newspaper, calls him, “the Lion of Paris,” as much for his aureole of red/gold hair as for his artistry.

So, at twenty, he is nothing; at thirty he is the ‘Lion of Paris’; at forty he is the first star of the twentieth century; and at sixty he is Prime Minister of Poland.

We now move to the year 1919, and the Paris Peace Conference. Gathered there are the four victors of World War I: Woodrow Wilson, Clemenceau, the ‘Tiger of France,’ Lloyd George of great Britain, and the suave Vittorio Orlando of Italy. They are striding across the world stage like four great colossi in the aftermath of the war. They have come to carve up the world, and the have invited Paderewski. He lobbies the intensely, with all of his persuasive powers and charisma, for a free, independent and autonomous Poland. Poland, his beloved homeland that has always been at the mercy of it’s voracious neighbors from the Teutonic Knights of the 15th century to the Austrians, Prussians and Russians of the 18th and 19th centuries. And he succeeds….and he is asked to be a signatory of the Versailles Treaty, and becomes the first Prime Minister of a free Poland.

There is a point of view that has been prevalent in the United States for some time now in the foreign affairs and political community, that artists are not to be taken seriously when speaking on serious matters (I am not speaking of Hollywood). That they are ‘flakes’, or too emotional with their head in the clouds… purveyors of dreams. While in Europe, the contrary is mostly true. Clemenceau said that Paderewski was the greatest man that he’d ever met. But first he affirmed him. Upon meeting, he asked if this was the pianist? “Yes,” replied Paderewski.

“And now you are Prime Minister?”


“My,” said Clemenceau, “what a come down.”

Bismark said that all the politicians in Poland are poets, and that all the poets are politicians. The French have maintained that one of the differences between us and them is that they mourn their artists but bury their politicians, while we mourn our politicians and bury our artists. But, even given this attitude amongst the power elite in this country, they are nevertheless paradoxically attracted to artists. Letitia Baldrige said at the Library of Congress last September that, when Pablo Casals came to play at the White House at the invitation of President Kennedy, and after decades of self imposed exile, everyone from the White House staff to political notables hovered around him, wanting to hear some sounds from his instruments, some words from his lips, or simply to be in his presence. Why? I believe it is because artists, by their very definition, must deal with the truth, whereas politicians often avoid it. A tender conscience is required for the creative process to be deeply honest. No shame emotions… no half way… and no turning back. And since art is a way of life, this integrity infuses the character of the artist, and moral candor is irresistible to those who do not have it.

We must find a way to make better use of our artists in this country, both in an official capacity, so that the power of their talent can reach out to the world and even to listen to them when they speak on matters of national import. I truly believe that this is why Paderewski instituted scholarships for aspiring artists to study international affairs.

And finally… what is Paderewski’s legacy. Why are we here sixty-five years after his death (almost to the day)? Was he a great genius? He would have said, no – that his life was one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration. Was he a great composer? Probably not. His music has been lost to the public consciousness now for decades. Was he a great pianist? Yes, but we only have the scratchy recordings. His panache, his presence and the glorious sounds that filled those old halls has recorded into the dimness of history. What then? I believe that Paderewski Legacy is the same that ours will be; that is: how have we lived our lives. In addition to being great patriot and artist, Paderewski was unfailingly generous person. He gave to people in all walks of life. We heard from General Rowny earlier this evening about the breadth and scope of his philanthropic activities. Can you imagine giving money and support to battered women as early as the beginning of the twentieth century? He also gave to the underprivileged, to students and artists, to veterans and the American Legion, to cultural exchange initiatives, and on and on. And he gave from his own resources. So much so, that when he died at the Buckingham Hotel in New York in 1941 at the age of eighty, he was virtually broke – yet still giving, even in death, as the President of the National council of the Polish government in exile after Hitler had occupied Poland. So he used his honor, his fortune, his fame and his talent to raise people up, to give them joy through his music, and even to lead them to freedom. He was therefore a good and noble person, but he was all those things in epic proportions. And whenever I thing of Paderewski, I always think of the story of that doctor in Louisiana whose medical practice consisted entirely of the poor and victims of the underclass. And after he become engaged, his fiancée, tried to get him to give up what she considered an illusion, and to make money instead. He refused, and she left him. He lived out the remainder of his life alone, but still helping people regardless of the hour of the day or night. And when he died, the community, in arranging his funeral, tried to determine what they might say or do that would be becoming of the man. Until someone came up with the idea of taking the plaque off the wall of the street entrance to his office, and putting it on his coffin. So as people filed by, they read, “Dr. Updike… Upstairs.” And if the poets are right and “music is the speech of angels,” then Paderewski still has an audience, as he joins those who have crossed the line, who have fought the good fight and returned to their source, who is the Author of all life. Well done, Paderewski! I hope to meet you one day.