Paderewski, Parlor Music, Piano Professors, and Progress: The Piano at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, Part 1

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.

Teaching with Produce, Episode 1

I use a lot of images in my classes, especially art and architecture from the time periods we’re studying. It can be challenging, when studying architecture, to visualize a 3-dimensional structure when all you’re looking at is a 2-dimensional photograph. One way of meeting this challenge is by learning to read different kinds of 2-dimensional representations, like ground plans and elevations. Another way is to use 3-dimensional models. And sometimes you can make your model out of produce.

When I teach Renaissance art in a core course on modern Europe, I choose three examples, one each of painting, sculpture, and architecture—all from Florence, all from about 1430, and all one of the first of their kind. So we take a look at Donatello’s David, the first free-standing bronze nude since antiquity;Masaccio’s Holy Trinity, one of the first uses of vanishing point perspective; and Brunelleschi’s Pazzi chapel, an early example of a domed building modeled on the Pantheon.

Unlike the Pantheon, however, where the dome sits atop a round drum, Brunelleschi’s dome sits on a square base. The transition is achieved by means of pendentives, the curvy triangles on either side of the semicircles. This is extremely hard to visualize from a photo alone—so I bring out the grapefruit. I owe this demo to my college art history professor at Santa Clara University, Dr. Brigid Barton (one of my pedagogical role models).

Take one grapefruit, the largest and roundest you can find, and slice it in half. You now have two hemispherical domes; set one aside. Then, with the cut side down, make four vertical cuts in the shape of a square. And voila! You now have a square base transitioning to a round dome, by means of pendentives. Thanks, Dr. Barton!

Proud to be a Dilettante

What the heck is a scholarly dilettante? Isn’t that a contradiction in terms? Not really. Allow me to explain.

I’ve been playing the violin since I was seven. When I was 15, I switched to a new teacher, Mr Gordon. I overheard my mother talking on the phone making the arrangements with him. He must have asked, “Is she a serious musician?” because my mother’s answer was, “No, she’s a dilettante.” My first reaction was indignation—“who’s she calling a dilettante?” But immediately I realized that she was in fact correct—I was a dilettante. I didn’t intend to make music my career; I wasn’t planning to be a music major in college; I didn’t practice for hours every day; I just did it for fun. Definitely a dilettante. I guess Mr Gordon didn’t care; I studied with him for several years; I continue to play the violin and viola to this day.

Recently I’ve been thinking about the exchange I overheard between my mother and Mr Gordon, and I’ve come to realize not just that I am a dilettante, but that I should not be ashamed of it. In fact, I should be proud of it. Because the original meaning of the word “dilettante” isn’t someone who’s unserious or untalented or superficial or a dabbler. “Dilettante” comes from the Italian verb dilettare, which means “to take delight in.” That attitude describes not just the way I approach my violin playing but also many other activities, including my professional life.

It may sound strange to hear a professional historian describe herself as a dilettante, especially since a related word, “amateur,” is often taken as the opposite of professional. But just as the etymology of “dilettante” is “delight,” the etymology of “amateur,” from French this time, is “lover”—an amateur is someone who does something for the love of it. So while I’m definitely a professional historian—I have a PhD; I am a tenured full professor at a university, which pays me; I give papers at academic conferences and publish articles in peer-reviewed journals;—I love what I do and take delight in it. (Well, maybe except for grading. And meetings.)

Furthermore, being a dilettante doesn’t only mean you can take delight in what you do for a living, your profession. It also means you can take seriously what you do for fun, as an amateur. I’m an amateur musician, but I took a year of music theory at our local community college. Every summer for about the last ten years I’ve attended a weeklong workshop on violin technique. Several years ago I began taking piano lessons, also at the community college. I take them for college credit, partly because it’s slightly cheaper than the non-credit option but mostly because it is more demanding. As a requirement for the course I have to attend performance classes where the other college students and I play for each other and get feedback from a faculty member; I’m also required to play before a jury of faculty every semester. I don’t need the credits; I don’t care about the grade (although I do have a 4.0). I do it this way because it’s a greater opportunity for learning.

I plan to use this blog to explore in a scholarly way the things I take delight in. That will include historical topics, of course, especially from the eras I teach (ancient Greece and Rome and the Middle Ages primarily, but also modern Europe), as well as musical ones and any others that take my fancy. I would be delighted for you to join me in these explorations.

Playing 2nd violin in my mother’s orchestra, age 8.
Playing with my mother, age 21.
Taking delight in a violin lesson, summer 2019.