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Once upon a time, a musical celebrity in America

Polish-German pianist and composer Xaver Scharwenka
Polish-German pianist and composer Xaver Scharwenka

On Wednesday, the Newport Music Festival presents cellist Sergey Antonov and pianist Bernadene Blaha performing at The Breakers, the palatial cottage once owned by Cornelius Vanderbilt II. The all-Polish program might seem far removed from Gilded Age New England, but one of the composers was, it turns out, no stranger to The Breakers. In fact, Xaver Scharwenka (1850-1924) was, for a time, one of the bigger musical celebrities in America.

Born in Szamotuły (then within the Prussian province of Posen), Scharwenka made his name in Berlin, as a virtuoso pianist, then as a composer (his Op. 3, No. 1 “Polish Dance” became an inescapable recital staple, somewhat to Scharwenka’s chagrin), and, finally, as an educator. In 1881, Scharwenka and his brother (and fellow composer) Philipp founded their own conservatory, soon a popular destination for American aspirants. Scharwenka’s first visit to the United States, in 1890, was, he told reporters, simply a chance to visit former students. That the press took notice, however, hints at Scharwenka’s stature. Wherever he went, Scharwenka was greeted like royalty — culminating with a star-studded banquet at New York’s Brighton Beach Hotel, serenaded by a 120-piece orchestra.

Scharwenka emigrated the following year, settling in New York, where he established a branch of his conservatory. He also undertook a nationwide concert tour, and discovered just how famous he was: In the western United States, an impostor already had been performing under Scharwenka’s name. The culprit — one Ernst Hoffmann — was (according to a newspaper article quoted in Scharwenka’s memoirs) also a womanizer who, in Scharwenkian disguise, had married a Miss Gutmann and then precipitately fled. Unbelievably, Hoffmann later turned up on the composer’s New York doorstep, pleading financial difficulties, hoping Scharwenka would help him join the Odd Fellows fraternal organization. Scharwenka declined.

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It was in October 1898 that Scharwenka appeared at a musical evening at The Breakers, alongside (among others) American conductor Nahan Franko’s orchestra — the musicians of which were dressed, in a jingoistic nod to the Spanish-American War, like Theodore Roosevelt’s Rough Riders. A month later, Scharwenka moved back, for good, to Berlin. Scharwenka only occasionally returned to America, where critical opinion of him gradually cooled. (The Globe, less circumspect than most, called his final local appearance, a 1911 performance with the Boston Symphony, “soporific and characterized by pedantry.”) By then, Scharwenka was weary of ocean crossings. His last, 1913 American tour was undertaken only on the condition that he could be accompanied by his wife — and his dachshund.

Sergey Antonov and Bernadene Blaha perform music of Philipp Scharwenka, Xaver Scharwenka, Ludomir Rozycki, and Fréderíc Chopin, July 12,
9 p.m., at The Breakers, Newport, R.I. Tickets $42. 401-849-0700, www.newportmusic.org

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Matthew Guerrieri

Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at matthewguerrieri@gmail.com.