During what had to be one of the world’s worst vacations, Frédéric Chopin completed his sublime Preludes (Op. 28), 24 piano miniatures covering all the major and minor keys and evoking the gamut of human emotion. Perhaps as astounding as their brilliance is the fact that he was able to focus on them at all, when he was ill and chilled to the bone, on a cold, rainy island with hostile locals, incompetent doctors, and a dreadful piano.
It’s a testament to his genius and dedication that he was able to finish these and several other great works during that miserable trip. Distributed Proofreaders volunteers have contributed to Project Gutenberg a number of books touching on Chopin’s short but fascinating life and his relationship with the eccentric and passionate female novelist George Sand, who brought him to that inhospitable island.
Born in Warsaw in 1810 to a French father and a Polish mother, Chopin was a piano prodigy who settled in Paris at 21. He immediately made the right connections, including the wildly popular Hungarian pianist and composer Franz Liszt. Despite Chopin’s reluctance to give public performances in concert halls – unlike Liszt, the inveterate showman, Chopin preferred to perform in intimate salons – he became a celebrity whose compositions and services as a master piano teacher were very much in demand.
In 1836, at one of those intimate salons, Chopin met George Sand, a free spirit who frequently dressed like a man and smoked cigars. Although not attracted to her at first (“Is she even a woman?” he asked a friend), he soon fell under her spell. It was with her and her children – she was divorced from a French baron – that he traveled to the island of Majorca in November 1838 for what they hoped would be a healthful, warm winter in the Mediterranean sun. But, as Sand relates in her 1842 memoir, Un hiver à Majorque (A Winter in Majorca), it was a catastrophe. It was chilly and rained continually, Chopin became ill, and their landlord in Palma kicked them out for fear of contagion. They were forced to move from town to an abandoned hilltop monastery, the Valldemossa Charterhouse, with a bad locally-made piano – Chopin’s fine Pleyel was stuck in Customs until just three weeks before they left. (The Pleyel now takes pride of place at the Chopin/Sand Museum there.)
It was at the monastery that Chopin completed the Preludes and other works. In her 1855 autobiography, Histoire de ma vie (Livre 3), Sand wrote of the Preludes, “Ce sont des chefs-d’œuvre. Plusieurs présentent à la pensée des visions de moines trépassés et l’audition des chants funèbres qui l’assiégeaient” (“They are masterpieces. Several bring to the mind visions of departed monks and the sound of funeral chants that besieged him”). Chopin did not agree with her narrativist interpretations of his music, and was even angry when she suggested that one of them imitated the sound of the endless raindrops on the monastery roof. This was probably a reference to the famous Prelude No. 15 in D-flat Major, the so-called “Raindrop,” a name decidedly not given it by Chopin, who hated descriptive titles. Meanwhile, Sand, a prolific writer, completed Spiridion, an atmospheric novel about a young monk haunted by the ghost of an abbot.
Though the weather eventually improved, they left for France in February 1839. Chopin continued to compose, teach, and occasionally perform, and Sand continued to churn out novels. But he was becoming more and more ill, to the point where Sand found herself more a nurse than a lover. And there were already simmering tensions in the love affair. In 1846, she wrote Lucrezia Floriani, in which a long-suffering actress cares for a sickly and jealous prince. Their friends, appalled, immediately recognized Chopin as the prince. Liszt, in his Life of Chopin, one of the first full-length appreciations published after Chopin’s death, decried the “false proportions” of the prince’s character. But Sand, while respectful of her old friend Liszt, retorted in her autobiography that he “s’est fourvoyé de bonne foi” (“went astray in good faith”) by relying on their friends’ mistaken notions. Sand was, perhaps, protesting too much.
Sand ended the relationship in 1847 after family squabbles involving Sand’s now-grown children – though she claimed in her autobiography that he ended it by accusing her of no longer loving him. Chopin died of tuberculosis two years later, aged only 39. Sand was deeply affected by his death but did not attend his funeral. In her autobiography, though she still complained of her role as nurse, she had the grace to admit that he had repaid her “de mes années de veille, d’angoisse et d’absorption par des années de tendresse, de confiance et de gratitude” (“for my years of vigil, of anguish, and of devotion with years of tenderness, of trust, and of gratitude”).
Other 19th-Century accounts of Chopin’s life can be found at Project Gutenberg, including Frederick Chopin, as a Man and Musician, by Frederick Niecks, which criticizes George Sand’s “pretentions to self-sacrificing saintliness”; and Frederic Chopin: His Life, Letters, and Works, by Maurycy Karasowski, which, by contrast, relies extensively on her autobiography. There’s even a short biography for children, Chopin: The Story of the Boy Who Made Beautiful Melodies, part of the “Child’s Own” series of composer biographies. Not surprisingly, it omits all mention of Sand, whose place in his life could hardly be explained to a child, at least not in 1917. Biographies of Sand include the sympathetic Famous Women: George Sand, by Bertha Thomas, which vehemently denies that Sand “blighted” Chopin’s life. Whatever conclusion one may draw from their relationship, it certainly can’t be said it was dull.
This post was contributed by Linda Cantoni, a Distributed Proofreaders volunteer.