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The Great Chicago Piano War

July 2024
16min read

The battle between eastern and midwestern manufacturers hit fortissimo when the world’s most famous wizard of the keyboard turned up for the opening concert of the Columbian Exposition

The World’sColumbian Exposition, celebrating the four-hundredth anniversary of the discovery of America, opened its gates on May 1, 1893. The date did not imply doubt on the part of the city of Chicago that the famous landing had actually taken place in 1492. It was simply a case of not getting the 686 acres of fairground ready in time.

From the moment the first shovelful of earth was turned, labor disputes and fracases between the numerous exposition committees had increased and multiplied, while congressional appropriations, voted in the enthusiasm of the early planning stages, had dwindled pitifully by the time the actual day of reckoning came.

As the opening approached, a new set of last-minute, smaller-scale problems had to be settled by the fair’s administration: a group of zealous Sabbatarians was bringing suit in the Chicago courts to prevent the fair from being open on Sunday; the art director had aroused the scorn of Chicago art circles and East Coast newspapers by refusing to hang some nude drawings sent in by the Philadelphia Academy of Fine Arts; the plaster in most buildings was still so wet that even all-powerful Mrs. Potter Palmer could hardly hammer the gold-headed nail into the Women’s Building to signify its readiness.

But May 1 came as scheduled, and on it the great World’s Fair whirred into official existence as Grover Cleveland pushed the button that electrically raised a hundred flags, activated all the fountains in the park, and kicked the generator that started the machinery in the Industrial Hall. After an interminable program of greetings, speeches, poetry readings, and musical selections he then went to lunch in the Administration Building, while the cast of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show whooped around the rotunda in salute. “The scene that lay before the President as his carriage turned into the square,” said the local press, “was such as to cause the man who had been part of the most triumphant scenes in the last ten years of American history to flush with wonder and admiration.”

Although the fair was now officially open to the public (fifty cents entitled you to visit everything but the Esquimaux Village and the Colorado Cliff” Dwelling), one serious backstage crisis remained unsolved—a crisis that had been under the most extensive and acrimonious discussion for three months. Who would have thought that as civilized a matter as the opening concert in the fair’s Music Hall would have brought on the most ulcer-producing problem of the whole glorious World’s Columbian Exposition?

Music was a big item at the fair, a point of civic pride, since Chicago considered itself equal or superior to any city in the country in its musical sophistication. The Music Bureau, operating under the chairmanship of the exposition’s Liberal Arts Department, had released dazzling plans for filling the two separate concert halls built on the fairground. A huge festival chorus, a 250-piece orchestra, and guest artists from all over the world were scheduled to perform throughout the six months’ duration of the exposition. Biweekly symphony concerts and daily light-music concerts and organ recitals were regular features.

It was no wonder that the Music Bureau operated on so grand a scale. It was under the direction of a man of heroic proportions. Theodore Thomas, the great German conductor, had moved from New York three years earlier in response to a forthright offer from a Chicago businessman: “Would you come to Chicago if we gave you a permanent orchestra?”

“I would go to Hell if they gave me a permanent orchestra,” replied Thomas (all too prophetically, it must have seemed to him later), and thus the Chicago Symphony came into being. Thomas had already done more than any other single individual to raise the musical tastes of the East Coast concertgoer. Once established in Chicago, he employed his Teutonic, no-nonsense approach, by which audiences were frequently dragged kicking and screaming to a higher level of musical discernment. Inevitably he collected enemies.

Although the major explosions of the Great Chicago Piano War were detonated in Thomas’ Music Bureau, the fuse led from the seemingly unrelated area of the industrial and manufacturing exhibits so dear to the hearts of turn-of-the-century fairgoers. Among these displays of technological know-how few were as popular as the piano exhibits, for the piano of the 1890’s occupied a vastly different place in the American pattern of life than the piano of the 1970’s. Before the wheel, the screen, and the tube emerged to absorb the full time and attention of the American public, the piano stood unchallenged as the major source of home entertainment and the center of middleclass social activity. (A courtship without a piano to gather around seemed an impossibility.)

Hundreds of fiercely competitive manufacturers profitably supplied this enormous demand. Although the East Coast was still far ahead in production figures, Chicago had taken a clear lead in the expanding western market. And it was only natural that civic-minded fair officials, assigning prime locations in the display buildings, should keep the welfare of the local piano men uppermost in their minds. Then late in January of 1893, with rumbles of annoyance over exhibit space clearly audible to the East, the officials released the rules for the prize competition in which the gold and silver World’s Fair medals, so highly valued by piano manufacturers for advertising purposes, would be awarded. The reaction was both shocked and unanimous.

On February 1 the venerable Boston house of Chickering formally announced its withdrawal from participation in the Chicago fair. Within two weeks all sixteen New York firms and nearly every other important piano house in the East had followed its lead.

The judging system to which the easterners objected so violently was a ludicrously simple process. Instead of the usual panel of distinguished judges from various neutral parts of the world, the Chicago method called for one lone judge, Dr. Florence Ziegfeld, to rule on the merits of the entries. As head of the Chicago Musical College he was known as a man of stature and sound judgment (as his son Florenz would be in later years, in another field). But he wasChicagoanto the core, and W. W. Kimball, whose firm was the biggest of the Chicago piano manufacturers, was on the board of directors of his school. Would eastern pianos stand a chance against this transparent conflict of interest? The eastern manufacturers seriously doubted that they would.

A fair official rushed to New York to arbitrate. Perhaps, he suggested tentatively, the eastern manufacturers would prefer to rent space and exhibit their pianos without entering them in actual competition? This possibility brought a howl from the westerners. Nothing doing, they said in effect, for what good would it do a Chicago piano to win the gold medal of the Columbian Exposition if everyone knew that it had been won against local competition only and not by beating out a Steinway or a Chickering, a Knabe or a Weber, or another of the bigname pianos of the East? The Chicago piano men, moreover, were hurt that anyone would suspect the purity of their intent. “The members of this association are fraternal and cordial,” they announced in print, “and we were disposed to treat all alike, whether from East or West.”

Within a week a full-scale paper war was raging between Chicago and New York. The free-swinging journalism of the day made not the slightest effort to conceal the basic antagonism existing between easterners and westerners. The New York Times took off after the Chicago piano makers with an editorial sledge hammer: “The Western piano maker does not, so far as is publicly known, know how to make pianos, but he does, in his capacity of Western man of business, know how to extract the utmost amount of advertising from any given situation. . . . The pianos of Peoria and Keokuk and Oshkosh will sound much better when they are not compared with the pianos of Boston and Baltimore and New York. In the absence of these effete instruments the wild and woolly piano of the West will take all the prizes and its makers may persuade the farmers’ daughters of the Northwest that it is ‘equally as good’ as the instruments preferred by pianists.”

Mr. John Thacher, the unlucky official who had devised the one-man, one-vote system of judging, struck back in a Chicago press conference. The eastern manufacturers, he said, were afraid to have their products compared with the greater and cheaper western models and had simply been looking for a way out of the competition all along. Rumors flew in both directions: Chickering was being bribed to return by an offer of Steinway’s floor space; the roof of the Liberal Arts Building was leaking so badly that nobody’s pianos would be safe in it; the easterners were planning to exhibit illegally by placing pianos in their individual state pavilions.

It was just about here that the Chicago piano men, now collectively termed the Loyal Exhibitors, were struck by a most unpalatable thought. They called upon Theodore Thomas, at the Music Bureau, and informed him that they would take it unkindly if any piano made by any absent manufacturer should be heard in any concert given in any concert hall of the World’s Columbian Exposition. It was only fitting, they said, that the loyal pianos that were helping to foot the bill should reap the benefits of advertising in the concert halls. Thomas replied, in his usual straightforward roar, that he saw absolutely no connection between what went on in the manufacturers’ displays and what went on in his concert halls. He had already engaged several artists known to favor certain brands of piano, he added, and saw no reason to inconvenience them just for the sake of upholding local pride. The piano men next applied to the director-general of the fair, who announced unequivocally that no piano unrepresented in the exhibit halls would be heard in the concert halls. Business and Art had met in a head-on collision, and the piano war now escalated from a newspaper skirmish to a national issue.

It was definitely not the relative merits of Chicago and New York pianos that worried the American public. What mattered was the involvement of only one man- an innocent bystander who had stumbled onto the battlefield more or less by accident and now found himself caught in the cross fire. His name was Ignace Jan Paderewski, and in this, his second season in America, he was the most adored, the most adulated, the most discussed, and the most interviewed pianist who had ever come to the New World to seek his fortune.

Paderewski’s sensational debuts in Paris and London had brought him to the attention of the House of Steinway, the New York manufacturer responsible not only for important technical improvements in pianos, but also for the coup of importing European artists to tour the country and bring the indisputably golden notes of the Steinway piano to the ears of the forty-four states. Other pianists, including Anton Rubinstein, had already carried the Steinway banner across the country. Still others, of the stature of Hans von B’fclow, had rendered the same service for Chickering, Weber, and Knabe. But the impact of Paderewski on the American public was unprecedented in musical history up to that time. A number of factors besides pianism combined to create the hysterically happy reaction that James Huneker, the witty critic of the Musical Courier , quickly named Paddymania. On all levels of musical consciousness the young Polish visitor had taken over the country. While critics and scholars wrote exhaustive analyses of his technique and his interpretation of Beethoven, another, less critical segment of the population had instantly clasped him to itself with a singleminded enthusiasm no less intense or noisy than the Sinatra craze of the 1940’s or the Beatles passion of the past decade. Everything about the thirty-two-year-old pianist and his past history combined to inflame the collective female imagination of the United States: he was1 a widower with an invalid child; he was the patriotic son of a downtrodden nation; he was young and slim and muscular, with high Slavonic cheekbones and an aureole of red-gold hair that enchanted newspaper cartoonists as well as female music lovers. A great fuss was made in the press over the luxuriant locks of the visitor; they were a bonanza to minor poets, one of whom wrote for Philadelphia Music and Drama:

It was only a feather duster, But she worshipped it, she said, For its fascinating likeness To Paderewski ‘s head.

This sort of adulation greatly annoyed more serious Paderewski fans, particularly his fellow musicians. “Some call it hair,” composer Edward MacDowell remarked tartly. “I call it piano playing.”

During his first American season a year earlier a great mutual admiration had developed between Paderewski and Chicago. The pianist was awed by the sheer energy of the city; he called Chicago, Niagara Falls, and the Grand Canyon the three most amazing phenomena in the United States. Also, a lifelong musical friendship with Theodore Thomas and the Chicago Symphony had been established during their first appearance together on the concert stage.

During the winter of 1893 Thomas, as music director of the fair, had invited Paderewski, as Chicago’s favorite son among pianists, to appear at the two opening concerts of the exposition. Paderewski not only agreed to delay his return to Europe by a week in order to oblige but also offered to play without fee, for the greater glory of Chicago and the fair. The general rejoicing and good will occasioned by this arrangement lasted only until reporters, alert to the implications of the Piano War, asked Paderewski which brand of instrument he planned to play at the fair. A Steinway, of course, the pianist answered unequivocally, the same brand and the same piano he had been playing all season. Confronted with this statement, the director-general of the fair iterated his previous decision: no Steinway piano would ever see the inside of the World’s Columbian Exposition. A new wave of rumors and denials rolled through the press: Paderewski would play at the fair but he would not play a Steinway; Paderewski would play at the fair and he would play a Steinway, the officials having backed down; Paderewski would definitely not play at the fair, since the officials would never back down; Paderewski had never really been invited to play at the fair officially , the agreement having been cooked up between him and Thomas at a drunken stag dinner.

There was at least one man in Chicago whose plans remained absolutely impervious to the attendant hullaballoo. Theodore Thomas, exuding disdain through the entire length of his 5-foot-5-inch frame and muttering highly descriptive German epithets, went on planning the opening program (Paderewski would play his own piano concerto) and debating the cost of tickets (he was in favor of a dollar top but would concede a dollar and a half, fairground admission included).

On April 12 a newspaper advertisement for the pianist’s last regular Chicago recital announced: “Paderewski’s farewell to Chicago and positively last recital at Auditorium.” The last two words, superficially innocent, seemed weighted with significance. Why specify that his appearance was the last “at Auditorium” unless he were planning to play somewhere else in Chicago? The Chicago Tribune editorialized as follows: “If Mr. Paderewski cannot play in the new hall in Jackson Park except on some piano, the manufacturers of which withdrew their exhibits ... on account of petty spite, then there will be a general willingness to dispense with Mr. Paderewski’s playing entirely.”

But it was on the sturdy head of Theodore Thomas that most of the blame for the impasse was heaped. Even the New York-based Musical Courier rolled up its sleeves and joined the slugfest: “He is an overbearing boor,” wrote the reporter sent out to cover the Chicaero story. “There are some men interested in music who simply refuse to enter into any possible contact with Theodore Thomas, simply as a matter of taste and self-respect.” The sinister newspaper ad of April 12 once more brought the Loyal Exhibitors to the office of the director-general, who promptly ordered the posters bearing Paderewski’s name torn down and removed from the fairground. Up to this time the principal actor in the drama had had relatively little to say, partly out of a certain confusion as to exactly what all the fuss was about. It was an editorial in the New York World that finally stung him into print. The World wrote: “The determination of the World’s Fair directors not to allow Paderewski to play a Steinway piano may be rather small business for World’s Fair directors, but it is certainly not very generous on Mr. Paderewski’s part to sell himself to a piano firm. It sounds as if Mr. Paderewski was less of a world’s than a Steinway artist.”

In a letter to the editor dated April 28 Paderewski firmly replied that he was not under contract to play any specific brand of piano. “Throughout the wide world,” he added, “any artist is permitted to use the instrument of his choice, and I do not understand why I should be forced to play an instrument of a manufacturer strange to me and untried by me, which might jeopardize my artistic success.” Appended to this letter was a short note signed “Steinway & Sons,” underscoring the pianist’s remarks. “Permit us to state,” it read, “that we have no contract of any kind whatsoever with Mr. Paderewski, who is at liberty to follow his own artistic inclinations and preferences as to the use of an instrument best adapted to his requirement.”

The fact that Paderewski was not under contract to play Steinway pianos and, therefore, presumably played them only as a matter of artistic conviction was indeed a large mark in the Steinway plus column. Fortunately for the general decorum of the situation, no one leaked to the press a quotation from a document that had been resting quietly in the offices of Steinway & Sons for exactly one year and one month. It was dated March 28, 1892, and had been signed by the interested parties at the conclusion that year of Paderewski’s first American tour. Its third clause stated flatly (in translation from the German): “Mr. Paderewski promises that during his stay on the North American continent, he will play only . . . pianos of the House of Steinway & Sons, New York, that he will not use any pianos of any other American piano manufacturer, nor give any testimonials for any other pianos.”

What is the answer? Were the Steinway brothers, those outstanding men of probity and civic leadership, really barefaced liars? Hardly. But the business practices of the era were as cutthroat and free-swinging as the techniques of its journalism, and one would have to admit that as the leaders of a most competitive industry they were extremely sharp businessmen. They were also linguists whose ears were finely tuned to the delicate shades of meaning of the German language. At the top of the document setting forth the conditions of the Paderewski tour was not the word Kontrakt but the word Übereinkommen : an agreement. A gentleman’s agreement. And since it was not the sort ofthing that any gentleman, least of all the generous Steinways, would ever enforce on an artist against his will, why not simply forget about it altogether? Thus honor was saved, and neither the newspapers nor the Chicago piano men ever knew what a story they had missed.

Determined to see the fair whether he played at it or not, Paderewski left for Chicago at the end of April. “The grounds of the World’s Fair were like a huge camp,” he wrote nearly half a century later in his Memoirs . “All the men who were directing those colossal preparations were practically living (really camping) there on the spot. . . . Everything was in great disorder. . . . There was humidity everywhere, coming not only from the neighboring lake, but from the dampness of the buildings. The committee invited me to stay there and it was certainly a unique experience. ... It was something fantastic in its discomfort. But the strangeness and adventure of it all appealed to me.”

While the possible guest soloist camped out on one part of the fairground, a series of increasingly urgent committee meetings were being held in another. The World’s Columbian Exposition, in addition to an excess of humidity, suffered from a plethora of committees that often worked at cross-purposes and just as often claimed jurisdiction over identical areas. A National Commission had been appointed by Congress several years before. Although its actual powers were only vaguely defined, it had never been shy about claiming authority over everything in sight. This commission now appointed a special Piano Committee to review the situation. The committee collected nine hours of assorted testimony. “We gave everybody a chance,” the chairman told the press after the first day of hearings. “Plan after plan was offered, but to each some objection was raised and we were unable to agree.” One of the more ingenious plans specified that several pianos, all products of the Loyal Exhibitors, be placed around the stage and that the artist be required to play on each at least once during the program.

On April 28 the National Commission convened early in plenary session, ready to act upon the forthcoming resolution. Hours passed, but the doors of the hearing room remained closed and locked. Not until late afternoon did the members of the Piano Committee finally elbow their way through the crowds in the corridor and march into the room where the full commission sat, weary, irritated, and ready to sign anything put before it. The committee, however, was not to be deprived of its moment in history. It proceeded to outline the entire course of its two-day deliberation, with special emphasis on the fact that Theodore Thomas had not shown up to testify, although expressly requested to do so. At last it presented the not unexpected resolution, rejecting the presence of any disloyal piano on the premises and demanding its removal—“at the point of a bayonet if necessary”— should it somehow sneak in. Allowed to vote at last, the commission adopted the resolution wholeheartedly in the happy but overoptimistic belief that the matter had been settled and civic pride vindicated.

But now, to the fury of the commission, a group known as the Chicago Directory—the local officials and businessmen who had really been running the show all along —stepped in and claimed a conflict of authority. The Chicago Directory’s president, George R. Peck, asked the National Commission’s president, Potter Palmer, to call a meeting of still another group, the more elite Boards of Reference and Control, for the following day at three o’clock in the afternoon.

Judicious stalling on the part of President Palmer delayed the meeting for five hours. But at eight o’clock, when the Boards of Reference and Control finally arrived, it was voted to meet in the next room for private debate. This so outraged President Palmer and his henchmen that they made the grave mistake of bolting the meeting in a huff. Once they were out of the way the Boards got together with the Chicago Directory and voted to refer the whole thing to still another outfit—the Council of Administration—the next day.

The next day, of course, was opening day itself, and the Council of Administration was much too busy escorting Grover Cleveland around the grounds to worry about pianos. At last, on May 2, with the opening concert, a matinee performance, just a few hours away, the council met and handed down its decision. It was a masterpiece of diplomacy, though not of accuracy.

That afternoon the Musical Courier reporter sent this telegram to his New York office: P ADEREWSKI PLAYING ON S TEINWAY P IANO . T HE OFFICIALS NOW ASSERT THAT M USIC H ALL IS A SEPARATE INSTITUTION NOT CONNECTED WITH THE F AIR . The Council of Administration, cribbing from an interview that Paderewski himself had given to the music critic of the New York Post , added an obiter dictum to the effect that if a violinist played at the fair, no one would ask him to check his violin at the door and play one of the instruments on display in the Musical Instruments section. As a last effort of good will toward the Loyal Exhibitors, the council announced that it would tell Theodore Thomas to put some loyal pianos in the Music Hall and use them at rehearsals.

Thus the inaugural concerts of the Columbian Exposition were played as scheduled. Was it really worth all the trouble? Paderewski was exhausted from his lakeside adventures and was playing in spite of a painfully infected finger. A brisk wind whistled through the unfinished window frames, while the dampness that had accumulated in the hall throughout the winter nearly froze audience, orchestra, and artist alike. The next day, even as the second Paderewski concert was in progress, the befuddled National Committee members met once again and tried for five hours to figure out what had happened. They never did.

A few days later Paderewski left for Europe, after cancelling his last New York appearances because of Chicago-induced fatigue. Years later he said, “It took all the energy and skill and tact of Theodore Thomas and all his friends to obtain the agreement of the committee to my playing on a Steinway piano,” which shows that he certainly missed some of the fine points of the proceedings! Vicious post-mortems of the affair and slanderous personal attacks ran for months in the Chicago press, eventually driving Thomas out of his job as music director of the fair and almost losing him the Chicago Symphony.

For several days after the opening concerts the Chicago Evening Post mounted a vitriolic campaign against the Steinways. On May 5 the Chicago Herald ran a full-page ad from Lyon, Potter, the music store with the local Steinway franchise. Lyon, Potter piously and somewhat impishly denied that either it or the House of Steinway had been paying the Evening Post for all that free publicity. “At the same time,” Lyon, Potter added, “we beg to tender to the publishers of said newspaper our thanks for having brought the S TEINWAY P IANOFORTE so conspicuously to the attention of the public, and we invite all persons who have any curiosity to see the pianos manufactured by STEINWAY AND SONS to call at our warerooms, where we will be pleased to ... show them the merits of those superior musical instruments, of which we are the sole representatives.”

The piano that Paderewski had played at the fair was put on display in the main showroom of the music store, and for days crowds stretched around the block waiting for a chance to file by and look at it. In the end it was the only real winner in the Great Chicago Piano War.

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