Every Sunday evening during the month of August, a pianist is invited to play Chopin's piano. The piano is not a shiny, black grande, but an honest-looking, workman-like upright. The sort you'd see in any home where someone was learning to play this majestic musical instrument.
It is situated in a small drawing room, part of a suite of rooms or cells that Chopin, and his mistress George Sand, had rented for three months on the Mediterranean island of Majorca in 1838. The rooms are part of a vast abandoned Carthusian monastery in the village of Valldemossa, high in the hills with views of the valley down below, stretching to the sea.
Three years ago I first stepped into the monastery, more for the shade it offered on a bright sunny day, than for the music of its once famous guest. I wondered why people were sitting in small groups, or alone, their faces gazing into the distance. Then I heard the music, as it echoed softly through the ancient corridors, floating over the listeners, casting a spell like you would read in a fairy tale. I sat on some steps and fell silent, charmed by the extraordinary music of the man known as 'the poet of the piano'.
But this summer, the recitals were more spectacular. On August 1, on a warm night, more than 300 people sat around the Orquestra Simfonica de Balears, with Spain's popular pianist, Iván Martín, in the courtyard, outside the monastery. This natural arena was surrounded by steep house walls. In the darkness people leant from bright windows, watching the crowd below. It was a gala night. The first in a series of concerts to mark the bicentenary of Chopin's birth, and his sojourn on the island.
Saved his sanity
When Chopin left Paris for Majorca he was at the height of his popularity. He was born in Poland on March 1 1810. He studied music in Warsaw, and was immediately acknowledged as a child prodigy. Following the brutal suppression by the Russians of the 1830 Polish uprising, Chopin settled in Paris. He gave only a few public performances, but each one was a sensation. He was initially influenced by the Irish composer John Field, but soon developed a form called a ballade – which allowed him to improvise up and down the keyboard like a stream of consciousness, which was greatly admired. It induced a dream-like effect on his audience. He appeared to stroke the key-board rather than touch the keys; and his compositions and his personality were intensely romantic. Women fainted in his presence. Fortunately, like some of our super stars today who meet a good partner, and retain a sensible balance between their work and home life, he met George Sand, a famous writer. She fell passionately in love with him, and probably saved his sanity, by keeping house, cooking proper meals, teaching her own children, writing her novels, while giving him space to work. They went that winter to Majorca, because Chopin had developed a bad cough. Sand hoped the milder weather of the island, would cure him. In fact, the doctors soon diagnosed tuberculosis, which would terminate his life at only 38 years.
But they found peace in Valldemossa. Sand sent to Paris for his piano, and despite his threatening illness, he worked prodigiously. Critics say that his Majorcan compositions* reflect a remarkable balance and a serenity that had been missing from his music to that time. Majorcans are very proud of Chopin's stay among them. Valldemossa is a very attractive village today, and, not surprisingly, a popular tourist destination. His piano still stands in the room where he left it. A yellow or red rose is placed on its keyboard every day. I asked the young lady sitting at a desk in the room, 'Who put the rose there?’
She smiled, and said quietly: "No one knows for sure."
Just seconds before the bicentenary concert began, there was a commotion. Some people sprang to their feet, clapping and exclaiming. For a moment it was difficult to see what the fuss was all about. Then I saw a woman, accompanied by a small party, enter the square. People strained to see who it was. People leaning from the surrounding windows began to applaud and cheer. Queen Sofia of Spain smiled at everyone, waved, and sat down. The first notes of the concert began immediately.
I though her presence was a suitable tribute to this noble poet of music.
Included among Chopin's work at Valldemossa is his so called Second Ballad, Opus 38 in F, the Scherzo No 3 - Opus 39, in C sharp minor, the Mazurka - Opus 67 in A minor and the Preludes, the most famous of which is the Prelude No 15 - in D flat, commonly known as 'The Raindrops', which reflected the wet winter days that kept this busy 'family' indoors.