Prelude, No. 15 in D-Flat Major, Op. 28 “Raindrop” · Arthur Rubinstein
Chopin Unraveled: Valldemossa, Winter 1839
I adore her at the same time and cannot break these maddening ties. It is all wrong. She is too old for me—she is already thirty-four—six years older than I. This is unheard of! What will my poor mother and father say? It is scandalous. They must never find out. It will break them. But between Warsaw and Paris word may leak out. How much longer can we pretend that we are lawfully man and wife? Even the stupid peasants can see through our sham. They may reek of rancid olive oil and squid, but they are wise enough to know that we are just putting on this deceitful pretense.
And then the children! They do not like me, that is for sure. The interloper, they call me behind my back, sucking away their mother’s attentions to care for the insufferably pompous and priggish invalid. Horrible children, so wild and badly behaved. I would discipline them if I could, but it is not my place—and they are well beyond correction: the conspiratorial giggling, the childish pranks, Maurice with his insulting sneers, and Solange, especially, a vixen, a spiteful harridan—a spawn of her mother’s image. A disagreeable, rebellious brood of offspring, I must secretly admit to myself.
Ha! The vile child dressed up as a monk in this abandoned monastery we are inhabiting and dared to appear to me as a spectral ghost as I was asleep, warning me that I would pay dearly in hell for living in sin with that woman. That woman—her mother George Sand, whom I call Aurore. Indeed, the naughty child did prick my conscience and my shame. I thank her graceless prank for bringing me to my senses and for driving me to seek absolution from the monastery abbot for this abominable fornication. Yes, I will abstain from carnal relations with that woman. Solange, Solange—you are an unnatural beast, not an innocent child!
I must write. I must compose. There is work to accomplish. Every minute is our drumbeat marking the passing of time. How does she do it? I marvel. Aurore wakes even before I do, before the crack of dawn, and begins scribbling tirelessly with nary a scratch or correction. The woman simply cannot filter herself: twenty pages a day she produces, every day, without exception. Barely four hours of rest and she is back on her feet again, pressing her Amazonian vitality on everyone within her orbit. But here I must be brutally honest with myself, although I cannot tell her to her face—as if she would care anyway. There is much she writes that is sheer trash. She is facile, but lacks true inspiration. What will the world remember of her output fifty, one hundred years from now? She will be a mere footnote in literary circles. A writing cow, they will call her. Nothing more.
How I worshipped her once: such confidence, such insouciance, such breathtaking ambition and resourcefulness—for a woman. She is a libertine, a socialist! Two people could not be more ill-matched in temperament and affiliation. It has been two years since we were first introduced, and I recall that initial sense of revulsion that she inspired in me: a comely but freakish woman masquerading—and blaspheming—as a man. Yet her exquisite high-arched feet, her petite waist, her diminutive height, those olive-colored heavy-lidded eyes captivated me to the core. She is water, elemental in nature. She encompasses everything that is submerged in the ocean’s depths. Yes, I see clearly now: she is a predatory fish, a voracious barracuda, the kind we saw lined up at the fishmonger’s wharf when we first landed on this God-forsaken island, swallowing her prey with those hooded, aquatic eyes that lure you with melting tenderness then inject you with a shock of lethal poison.
I do notice that she has grown visibly older of late, rougher, more crusty and demanding, a cow in every sense, with pendulous breasts and a rump like a side of beef. Ah! I think of dear Maria in Warsaw. What would have become of us had our engagement come through? Such a childlike, pliable, gentle soul, obedient but shallow. I hope she will make someone a good wife as befits the daughter of a count. It was not meant to be for us. No doubt her parents convinced her I was too great a risk with my sickly health and bleak financial prospects. But, to this day, I cherish the embroidered woolen slippers she sent to me by post, and her letters bring me back to my beloved Poland. I have them with me still; they are my precious mementos. This is my great misfortune. Aurore must never know. Oh my God! Maria must never learn of my disgrace!
But the world will find out sooner or later. Aurore just does not care what people are saying. Why must she wear those tight, revealing trousers here in this closed community? The peasants detest her for it, and for those obscene malodorous cigars she brazenly persists in carrying around. Of course, the merchants are bleeding us dry, overcharging us for the most basic staples like milk and bread, especially as they see how much in contempt she holds them all.
I cannot bear this cold. It is December, the casement windows are unglazed, there is barely enough fuel for the cooking brazier. Early morning and the north wind is already howling, gnawing away at my bones. I feel the rasping deep in my chest; I am petrified lest I begin to vomit blood once again. I must compose. Time is like that dried-up autumn leaf swirling about in the breeze on the patio.
Early rays of sunlight are turning the dawn a rosy pink. At my desk, Aurore places a cup of steaming milk. Your chocolate, my pet, she whispers, and strokes me gently on the forehead with motherly tenderness. Aurore—my ministering angel! I clasp her warm hand in gratitude and continue my work.
One day melds into another as the rain continues to pour relentlessly until my lungs feel like dampened sponges. We seem to have lost all track of time here, and certainly no one approaches us with any news of the outside world, nor do they seem the least bit concerned with anything but their own rusticated traditions. So, no one cared to forewarn us of the island’s most significant feast day in honor of its patron, Saint Anthony, which provided an excuse for the most riotous and debauched carousing. All day long, Aurore reported, priests were lining up in front of the village churches sprinkling holy water on the endless procession of hogs and mules filing past plaster statues of the saint dressed up in lacy brocaded finery. And then, the verbal assaults began, forcing Aurore to back away and hurry home. You’re a godless couple! the gossips were screaming at her, offended that we did not even condescend to cavort with them at the village inn afterwards to dance their hysterical fandangos. The crowd even passed by one night to celebrate with an old Spanish lady—a Señora Antonia—residing at one of the monastery cells here. It was unearthly at first: the eerie sound of clicking in the distance, accompanied by flickering lights that reminded one of an invading horde of militant fireflies and locusts. The cacophony kept increasing in intensity until I cried out in alarm at the spine-chilling sounds. The clacking developed into a bone-jangling rattle like the scraping of skeletons, the procession of lights multiplied until the whole village came into view from under our windows. Oh, look! the children cried out in perverse fascination. They’re dancing with castanets! I could only cover my ears and bury my head under the rocklike Majorcan bolsters they call pillows here and try to block out the barbaric din.
The natives have completely shunned us. We have become the pariahs on this foreign soil so unused to any outside intruders. Apparently, no one is allowed to ignore the call to worship on Sunday mornings. There was a bizarre, yawping sound that echoed up and down the hilltops the first few weeks that astonished us, until we learned only too late that it was the local custom to blow on conch shells and summon the inhabitants to church. But by then, we were already singled out as an abomination in God’s eyes. How intolerable it must appear to them: the Señora George Sand sleeping at all hours of the day, daring to roam the monks’ cemetery and ruins unchaperoned before dawn, smoking and writing and drinking strong coffee all night long. And that sickly consumptive companion of hers, consigned to Hell for not going to confession. What a sensation we must be making!
That Señora Antonia and her fellow harpies: they are stealing our food supplies from under our noses. Just the other day, Aurore caught them pilfering fish from our cooking pot. Oh, what I would do for a decent plateful of pierogis or pożanski cutlets, or some of the tantalizing fruit ices I serve my guests in Paris. It is all such a distant memory now. If my good friend, old Delacroix, could see me—he with his waistcoats and I with my silk cravats! I have grown filthy in these unsanitary conditions. My hair has become lanky and sweat-soaked. It is too frigid to bathe; the well water is brackish and repellent. What point was there in bringing my beautiful perfumed kid gloves and fancy silk vests here to this isolated cell, I wonder. Just once I ventured out walking with Aurore and begged to be taken home almost immediately. No, my health is not improving here as we had hoped.
Aurore tells me that the Pleyel piano has finally arrived from Paris, and I will be glad to get rid of this dilapidated piece of junk the natives have deigned to rent to us. She will take Maurice with her to Palma and wrestle with the customs authorities to release it. They see their opportunity to bilk us of all our remaining funds and have tripled the duty taxes they normally would charge. It is an unusually clear day; just a few tufted clouds are scuttling across the deep azure sky. My little Chopinet, Aurore calls me, and promises to make the fourteen-kilometer journey and be home by nightfall.
I am alone—left to work on this wretchedly untuned instrument. How Delacroix with his gargantuan canvasses would laugh in derision if he could only see this tiny wooden toy of mine. I never could comprehend how he can claim to express his artistic passion through those imposing creations. They are huge—too vast and sprawling for me. I have the garden beyond my doorstep here, and on this minuscule keyboard I will create a universe of emotion. The Preludes are all ready—all save one. The sun is bright, I hear children’s voices in the distance, the cypress trees keep watch over this abandoned monastery like vigilant sentinels. I feel safe and guarded here. Ah! Church bells are ringing from the village. The sonorities fill my soul and bring me back to Warsaw where I sit at the organ, the old baroque Church of the Visitation, and play chorales as I used to long ago. Thirds and sixths tumble from my fingertips in perfect harmony, shaping my hands with the hills and valleys of the ivory keys. Symmetry rising and falling like wisps of cascading tinsel foil and swirls of incense as the solemn chorale intones in the background. This is a scherzo—yes! It has already shaped itself into existence by its own inevitable logic. Four measures answered by four more measures; balance and energy, rock-solid stability. The mystery and magic of all things in Four brought into being: soundness and security, like a table or chair, or an unshakably durable house resting on fixed bedrock.
I must break the monotony. It is suddenly quiet here. Late afternoon—they should be returning soon. The hilltops are growing dark. How did these clouds suddenly appear? Like the bellows of an accordion, they are piling upon each other in pleated folds, darker and darker until I hear them begin to rumble menacingly. I see faint dots of water droplets beginning to fall on the creeping ivy vines near the window. Something crashes. I jump in shock. A sudden gust of wind has blown out the candle and swept it onto the tile floor. It is so dark and cold! This chorale plasters and encases my head like a block of ice. This is no longer a scherzo. This is lugubrious: a dirge, a funeral procession. I cannot stop the sound. It is relentless. The rain is pouring in tremendous sheets of force; thunder and lightning are clapping like massive orchestral engines, cracking open the sky like a butcher’s cleaver. Oh my God! Water is flooding the cell floor, inches upon inches slowly moving towards the piano. I shall soon be engulfed in water. I knew it! I knew somehow I would one day drown.
Where are they? Will they ever return? Are they, too, drowning somewhere in the valley below? I cannot stop this note; over and over again, it is banging into my brain like a hammer. Is that rain I hear on the eaves outside? Drip, drip, drip, drip… Steady in groups of four. Even symmetry. Logic unfolding. Over and over it rises and falls, the same repeated note. Is it an a-flat? Now it is a g-sharp, the same sound magnified into infinity, the same notes chained together but sounding oceans apart. Before, I heard a gentle chorale. Now, there are monsters parading within this piano. They are dead—surely they are gone! It is already past midnight. And I am left alone here, the water is surging and I, too, shall soon drown. Drip, drip, drip, drip…This is not a piano; this is a butcher’s block pounding into my skull. It is over. I cannot stop the noise. The darkness is strangling me. What is that sound? Did I just hear myself roar? I cannot close my mouth! I have forgotten how to swallow. What is happening? I can no longer blink. Why am I staring like this? What was this jolt of electricity I felt? I am dead! Yes, I have died! What will my poor parents feel when they hear the news? Oh, how unspeakably sad…
Mama, look! I think I hear faint voices far, far away. Mama, look! His eyes are glassy, he’s not moving. He’s as stiff as a board. What’s wrong with him?
Oh, my love! I hear her calling from somewhere. My God, he’s not responding. What has happened to you? You are drenched in sweat, you are burning with fever. Maurice, children! Come, help me lift him away from the piano. Let’s get him into bed. Dear God! How thin he has become. I hear them hovering above me. Solange, fetch a bowl. He is retching again.
I feel my hands being rubbed briskly, a washcloth is wiped over my forehead. Mama, look! His eyes are opening. I recognize the childlike voice. Where have you been! I find myself sobbing, shouting hysterically and jumping out of bed. I know you were all dead. Oh, what a nightmare! I feel my strength collapsing again, dragging me back into darkness.
I think I hear vague muted whispering, but they are convinced I am comatose. We must take the next steamer back to France, children. I know you love this island, but our invalid will die if we stay here any longer. Word has already spread that he is consumptive, probably the reason why everyone has been avoiding us. And now, dears, we have even more expenses. Stupid, superstitious people! They will demand that we burn everything we have rented from them, including their cheap little piano, the mattresses, everything we have touched for fear of our contagion. Ignorant brutes!
I sink into delirium and dream of home.
The author at Valldemossa, 1993, with a bust of Chopin
Author's CommentWithout doubt, most pianists have felt a particular affinity for the music of Frederic Chopin. He is the pianist’s pianist, the paragon of timeless grace and elegance counterpoised by unfathomed depths of melancholy and despair. Chopin and I have enjoyed a lifelong relationship: I have channeled him through my performances of his music, occupying his spirit, watching in amazement as his spidery fingers would glide over the keys in trance-like exultation, feeling his exhaustion when he would lock himself in his room agonizing over the choice of phrasing for his new works, experiencing his terror of abandonment and his strange fascination for the writer George Sand, an affair that would ultimately break him. A while back, I embarked on a pilgrimage to Valldemossa and roamed the damp and sparsely furnished rooms that he had once tenanted with the author and her children. I am certain I had heard his ghost crying out during that fateful evening long ago.