Earlier this week, the feast of St. Valentine provided an opportunity to exchange sentiments of affection. But this celebration might also serve as a reminder of the special talents that performing artists from Poland have long shared with the people of the United States. On three occasions between 1892 and 1905, a popular Valentine gift in Buffalo, NY, might have included tickets for concerts by notable Poles.
Remembered also for his work as a humanitarian, Ignace Jan Paderewski was perhaps the foremost pianist of his time. On the eve of St. Valentine’s Day in 1892, he made his second concert appearance in Buffalo. Occurring on a Saturday evening, this event attracted a large and enthusiastic audience. In a review published on Feb. 15 of that year, The Buffalo Commercial reported that “every seat was occupied” and many additional chairs were “placed on the stage for late ticket-buyers.” The newspaper praised Paderewski with unrestrained enthusiasm:
“Well may those who heard Paderewski Saturday evening congratulate themselves. A giant among the artists of today. An artist who combines in himself the sentiments and feelings all the great composers possessed when writing their marvelous compositions. A man under whose touch the piano does not seem to be the piano we have heard played by other great men, but an instrument to be singled out as a marvel in its perfection of tone, power and sweetness. Truly we have heard a great man, a very Caesar amongst musicians and pianists who has not only conquered, but of whom it is difficult to refrain from saying from a musical standpoint, ‘He is perfection.’”
Before the age of moving pictures and television, many Americans looked to live theater for entertainment. At the close of the 19th century, one of the most widely recognized stars was a Polish actress by the name of Helena Modjeska. In 1899, Madame Modjeska visited Buffalo for performances in three different plays on Feb. 13, 14 and 15. In anticipation of her arrival, The Buffalo Times described Modjeska as “the high priestess of the tragic stage in this country.” According to newspaper accounts of her visit, she did not disappoint.
In a review published on Feb. 14, The Buffalo Commercial observed that Modjeska’s “acting was such that she held the audience spellbound.” The writer noted that “her acting has a certain finish and grace that has been accentuated during the years, and she is today one of the most finished artists on the stage.” On Valentine’s Day itself, a large audience filled the Star Theater to see Modjeska perform in Shakespeare’s “Antony and Cleopatra.” On the following day, The Buffalo Courier reported that “her acting was perfect, her portrayal of the different moods of the passionate Egyptian queen being as near ideal as possible.”
Yet another Valentine celebration of Polish culture occurred in 1905, when Paderewski returned to Buffalo for a concert on Feb. 15. On the following day, The Buffalo Times described Paderewski as “the master pianist of the world.” The Buffalo Enquirer reported that “never before in Buffalo’s history has such an immense audience greeted a musical artist as that which assembled last evening to hear the inimitable Paderewski.” According to The Buffalo Morning Express, “the house was packed to the doors and there were rows of standees lining the walls on both sides.”
As on the feast of St. Valentine in 2022, cold temperatures greeted Paderewski when he arrived in Buffalo in 1905. In an interview published in The Buffalo Courier, however, the master pianist looked at the weather from a positive perspective:
“There is one thing which I greatly admire about the Northern winters, and that is the magnificent sleighrides one may have. When I left the hall tonight I was driven to the hotel in a large sleigh. It was grand. Muffled up in great fur robes, with the horses speeding along, made it a delightful experience.”
Buffalo’s Polish community also shared the spirit of St. Valentine’s Day with Paderewski. In its edition for Feb. 15, 1905, The Buffalo Enquirer reported that Dr. Francis E. Fronczak, Dr. Francis Pitass and Professor Thaddeus Balucinski visited Paderewski upon his arrival, “and on behalf of the Polish-Americans of Buffalo presented him with a magnificent bouquet.” After Paderewski’s concert that evening, the Moniuszko Singing Society presented another large floral wreath to the pianist.
In describing the concert, The Buffalo Morning Express observed that “the audience was not only inspiring in its size, but in its appreciative enthusiasm as well, and even Paderewski, accustomed as he is to ovations, seemed pleased by his reception.” Like the musical experience that Paderewski provided as a Valentine gift to Western New York, Polonia extended to Paderewski its own expression of appreciation and respect.
In the cases of both Paderewski and Modjeska, Valentine interactions with the audiences of Buffalo serve as mere examples of their broad influence on the culture of America. During her long career, Helena Modjeska performed in more than 225 cities across the United States and Canada. Paderewski’s acclaim helped to enhance his ability to promote the cause of Polish independence after the start of World War I. In recognition of his dual role as a musician and patriot, Yale University awarded Paderewski an honorary doctorate in music at commencement ceremonies in 1917. As a prelude to the graduation exercises, the school band played the Polish National anthem.
The artistic performances of 1892, 1899 and 1905 are examples of how the Polish community has affectionately shared its gifts with America. In a like spirit, each of us has hopefully found an opportunity to express our love and appreciation to others on the recent feast of St. Valentine.