Debussy in the Dark

Star pianist’s performance was a treat for the ears—but not the eyes
November 30, 2011
 
Shy virtuoso

Shy virtuoso: Program and ticket stubs from Paderewski’s sold-out—and barely visible— Page Auditorium performance.Duke University Archives

In October 1930, fire swept through Raleigh’s City Auditorium, injuring no one, but almost completely destroying the building. This presented a problem for Ignace Paderewski. The worldrenowned pianist and composer (and former prime minister of Poland), then seventy years old, had begun his seventeenth and final tour of the U.S.—with a scheduled stop at City Auditorium.

With a concert date to fill, Paderewski and his agent turned to J. Foster Barnes, Duke’s director of social and religious activities, who offered the recently completed Page Auditorium on Duke’s new West Campus as an alternate venue. The concert was rescheduled for January 8, 1931, and would later be recognized as the first performance in the Duke University All-Star Concert Series, now the Duke Artists Series.

Tickets went on sale New Year’s Day, with prices ranging from $1.50 to $3. They sold out in a matter of days, with seats on the auditorium’s left side in high demand, as they would afford concertgoers a view of Paderewski’s hands. On the afternoon of the concert, 150 chairs were added on the stage itself. These, too, sold out instantly.

Amid a storm that dropped two inches of snow on the area, people traveled from all over the state to see the performer many described as “the greatest of living pianists.” A group of 100 came from Raleigh’s Meredith College, and another 200 came from Chapel Hill. The Chronicle estimated the auditorium crowd at 1,600, with large numbers waiting for unclaimed tickets at the door.

Except they hardly saw him at all. Paderewski, who experienced tremendous stage fright, had required that all house and stage lights be turned off during his performance. So it was that the capacity crowd of music lovers, deterred once by fire and nearly a second time by snow, listened to a virtuoso perform Chopin, Debussy, and Rachmaninoff by the light of a single candle, perched on a Steinway grand piano. There were five encores.

One of those music lovers was Dorothy Newsom Rankin ’33, whose concert program is in the Duke Archives’ collections. Rankin, an accomplished musician herself, made careful annotations to the programs of the concerts she attended throughout her life. On this particular program, she wrote, “back of stage—shook hands with him twice!!!!!!!” Her seven exclamation points seem appropriate punctuation to what the Durham Morning Herald called “the greatest ovation ever accorded a performer in Durham.”