On May 2, 1893, Polish piano virtuoso Ignaz Paderewski performed at the inaugural concert of the Music Hall on the grounds of the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago (also known as the Chicago World’s Fair). The program opened with the 114-member Exposition Orchestra, conducted by Theodore Thomas, playing Beethoven’s “Consecration of the House” overture, followed by Paderewski performing as the soloist in his own piano concerto, playing his preferred Steinway instrument. This was followed by a selection of solo piano works by Chopin and Schumann. The orchestra returned to conclude the concert with Wagner’s Prelude to Die Meistersinger.
This apparently unremarkable story of a performance actually encapsulates the story of music, particularly piano music, at the Chicago World’s Fair. Every aspect of the performance—the event itself, the program, and the instrument—can serve as a window into the context of the Fair’s musical activities. At the same time, this seemingly routine account masks tensions regarding American identity, between highbrow and lowbrow forms of entertainment, and over the status of women and African-Americans that disturbed not only the Fair but also Gilded Age American society as a whole.
The Chicago World’s Fair
The Fair commemorated the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ discovery of America. It was located in Jackson Park on the shore of Lake Michigan, seven miles south of the Loop, where landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted and supervising architect Daniel Hudson Burnham created what became known as the “White City.” The individual fair buildings, although designed by different architects, adhered to a common Neo-Classical style, known as “Beaux-Arts” from the school in Paris where many architects trained, and were all painted white. The main exhibition buildings, such as Machinery Hall, the Agriculture Building, and the gigantic Manufactures and Liberal Arts building, were arranged around a basin carved by Olmsted out of the marshy lakeshore and called the “Court of Honor.” Perpendicular to the fairgrounds proper ran the “Midway Plaisance,” a wide boulevard about a mile long. Here were gathered not only food concessions, rides, and other entertainment options—giving its name to the “midway” of every subsequent state and county fair with their carnival rides and cotton-candy stands—but also living ethnological exhibits and the Fair’s signature attraction, the great Wheel designed by George Washington Gale Ferris and intended to surpass the iron tower constructed by Gustave Eiffel for the Exposition Universelle held in Paris in 1889.
The World’s Columbian Exposition was dedicated on October 21, 1892. Hold on, you say, isn’t Columbus Day October 12? Yes it is, but New York City had scheduled its Columbus commemoration for that day and Chicago didn’t want to compete either for attention or for dignitaries—they were hoping U.S. President Benjamin Harrison would attend. So they creatively reasoned that if the Gregorian calendar had been in use in 1492, the day Columbus sighted land would have been October 21, not October 12, which makes October 21 the “real” Columbus Day. As it turned out, Benjamin Harrison couldn’t come, as his wife was dying, but he sent Vice President Levi Morton in his place. Morton expressed the overall purpose of the Fair when he dedicated it “to the world’s progress in arts, in science, in agriculture, and in manufacture.”1 The new President, Grover Cleveland, did attend the Opening Day of the Fair on May 1, 1893. The building of the Fair continued through the winter of 1892-93, and it opened to the public on May 1, 1893, closing six months later on October 31.
Next: The Paderewski Concert
For Further Reading:
Badger, R. Reid. The Great American Fair: The World’s Columbian Exposition and American Culture.
Harris, Neil, Wim de Wit, James Gilbert, and Robert W. Rydell. Grand Illusions: Chicago’s World’s Fair of 1893. Chicago: Chicago Historical Society, 1993.
Larson, Erik. The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America. New York: Vintage Books, 2004.
Levine, Lawrence W. Highbrow/Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 1988.
Mucigrosso, Robert. Celebrating the New World: Chicago’s Columbian Exposition of 1893. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 1993.
Rydell, Robert W. All the World’s a Fair: Visions of Empire at American International Expositions, 1876-1916. Chicago and London: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1984.
Rydell, Robert W., John E. Findling, and Kimberly D. Pelle. Fair America: World’s Fairs in the United States. Washington and London: Smithsonian Institution Press, 2000.