An E minor homecoming

I visited Mallorca in summer 2016 as part of a little family reunion. I admit my weakness for islands — I had a great time on this sunny piece of land of which I have fond memories. I particularly remember one dinner I had with my wife Susy in a very good restaurant. The set and the setting were right and the food was delicious — quintessentially Mediterranean. We have collected many Michelin stars since then, but I don’t recollect enjoying such tasty food in other places. Reflecting on that experience I came to the realization that there is no way back — the water and the salt of the Mediterranean Sea now run through my blood vessels.

The yummy restaurant was situated halfway from Palma to Valldemossa, and I tried to imagine the place without the sun and heat, perhaps, even covered with snow. I fancied how one winter almost two centuries ago a strange couple accompanied by teenage boy and girl drove along that road. The gentleman was none less than Frédéric Chopin, at that time in the zenith of his career: a widely acclaimed genius composer — one of the brightest stars in the European musical firmament of his epoch and a sought after piano teacher for whose lessons affluent piano aficionados and their (obviously, very talented and promising) young offsprings across the continent were prepared to pay through the nose. While himself a virtuoso pianist, Chopin lacked the showmanship of his friend (or bitter enemy, depending on the mood) Franz Liszt and disliked public performances. He preferred the more intimate atmosphere of private salons and, in fact, was always a welcome guest in the most exclusive venues where money met culture.

Monsieur Chopin’s companion was Aurore Dupin who neither required an introduction. Although her mother was a commoner, Aurore’s father could decorate himself with a long list of cousins of various degrees among the European royal families. By her thirties she already had two teenage children, one divorce, and a sequence of illustrious French writers, actors, and politicians among her lovers. In addition to those important virtues, under the male nom de plume George Sand, she was one of the most popular writers in Europe selling in England alone more books than Hugo and Balzac (alas! today, Sand is more cited than read.)

The two met by chance at a fancy Parisian party in 1836 and it was a sort of love from the first sight. The imaginative composer was deeply impressed by the meter-and-half short, dark-skinned woman six years older than him, who smoked thick cigars, wore pants (subversive of the ordinance that demanded women to obtain a special permit from the prefect to wear men’s cloths), and talked in a loud hoarse low voice befitting a port loader. What an unattractive person this Sand is — is she a woman at all? — remarked Chopin. Aurore’s impression must have been along the same lines: she was amazed and, admittedly, confused by the effect “that little creature” had on her. “If I were a proud person I should be feeling humiliated at having been carried away” she confessed. Shortly after exchanging such flattering first impressions, the two became lovers.

In 1838, this improbable couple escapes the gloomy Parisian winter and travels to Mallorca. The official reason for the journey is to allow Chopin to improve his frail health, but it is quite likely that Sand also wanted to escape the advances of one of her former lovers. Initially, the couple lodged in a spacious villa they rented in the environs of Palma. Until the end of November Chopin and Sand enjoyed —well, sand, sea, and sun, but the idyll didn’t last long. The sunny weather transformed into a rainy and windy Mediterranean winter and the autochthones suddenly became inhospitable. According to Sand’s own recount in her (dubiously trustworthy) autobiographic Un hiver à Majorque, the pious locals couldn’t stand the unorthodox unmarried couple with two teenage children that did not go to church on Sundays, but a more probable reason is that Chopin was diagnosed with tuberculosis. Three doctors visited him in quick succession — the first said Chopin was dead, the second that he was dying, and the third that he was going to die. Each and all was declared incompetent by the opinionated lady. In any case, the travelers were evicted from their love nest and had to find refuge in a former Carthusian monastery in the hilltop town of Valldemossa, where they lived for the following eight weeks in an ambiance worth of Edgar Allan Poe’s Gothic horror stories.

My personal observation is that Mediterranean dwellings are simply unfit for cold weather. Be it in southern Italy or France, Greece or Israel — the winter is relatively short, but you suffer it fully in homes completely lacking the thermal insulation and the heating facilities of their northern cousins. Chopin’s health deteriorated to such an extent that he started resembling a walking dead (“my beloved little corpse” as his lover affectionately called him — she wasn’t a usual woman, indeed.) In February the couple finally decided to abort their miserable journey and return to France. Despite this unhappy episode in Frédéric’s and Aurore’s lives, their sojourn was far from fruitless. It gave birth to an undying masterpiece — perhaps, one of the most important pieces of music ever composed for the piano that, undoubtedly, ensured Chopin’s claim to immortality. I’m talking about opus 28, of course — his celebrated cycle of 24 preludes.

Chopin was not the first composer to conceive of a collection of preludes spanning all major and minor keys. Before him, it was endeavored by none other than Johan Sebastian Bach who with his two volumes of Das Wohltemperirte Clavier had made a giant leap toward the foundation of Western tonal music as we know it today. However, in JSB’s design, the preludes served merely as an improvisatory-ish introduction to corresponding fugues — marvels of Baroque counterpoint. Chopin radically changed the designation of the genre: his preludes are an introduction to nothing. Rather than foreplay before the real thing, Chopin’s pieces stand in their own right even though some of them are barely a minute long. These Preludes are like little cameos — mood sketches ranging from intense brilliance to abyssal darkness. Although they can (and often are) played separately, they have a totally different effect when performed as a whole. It is quite likely that this is what Chopin intended — a kind of a kaleidoscope of emotions unfolding all twenty-four major and minor keys in a natural harmonic ordering of a rising circle of fifths — every odd prelude is in a major key and every even one is in the relative minor key of its predecessor.

Chopin came to Mallorca with a bunch of sketches and mailed the finished opus to Paris shortly before his fugue from the island. Many musicologists came up with a list of preludes that were probably composed in Mallorca — versions of this list are as numerous as the learned experts who compiled it. Since documented evidence is scarce, the debate still goes on, focusing on which of the preludes have a “morbid and azotic” atmosphere and where “clings a faint flavor of disease, a something which is overripe in its lusciousness and febrile in its passion” (these, therefore, must have been composed under the influence of the suggestive Carthusian ambiance) versus those “full of good humor and gaiety” (too joyful to have been penned in such a lugubrious place.) With all due respect, I am convinced that the discriminating criterion is more prosaic. The preludes that Chopin could possibly have written in Valldemossa are not determined by the feelings of suffocation that his little coffin-shaped cell evoked, but rather by the way these walls and ceilings reflected sound waves. That horribly reverberating acoustic environment would reduce any attempt to play fast chromatic figures into a miserable cacophony. Physics, not lyrics, likely excludes a list of preludes such as the last one in D minor — they must have been composed elsewhere before the fatidic hiver in Mallorca. What is certain almost beyond doubt is that the famous E minor prelude, number four in the opus, was composed in Valldemossa.

Chopin himself didn’t assign any titles to his preludes and discouraged publishers and interpreters from doing so. He was a strong opponent of programmatic music; in fact, I personally think that the quintessential Chopin is utterly un-programmatic. When Schumann penned elaborate stories interpreting Chopin’s variations on a passage from Mozart’s Don Giovanni, Chopin derided him, remarking: “I could die laughing at this German’s imagination.” In Chopin’s view, his music represented abstract ideas and feelings, transcending visual, earthly images and allowing ample individual interpretation. However, some of the musicians ignored the composer’s recommendation and did attach an epithet to his score. Sur la tombe wrote Cortot in his notes referring to the E minor prelude. In Hans von Bülow’s interpretation it was rather the feeling of suffocation, but, perhaps, the great musician was choking with bitterness and caustic rage toward another great musician, Richard Wagner, who ran away with his wife Cosima (as a token of gratitude for von Bülow’s stellar performance of his operas Tristan und Isolde and Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg.) Wagner was a naughty fellow, indeed, totally defying the thesis that genius and evildoing are incompatible — the one that Pushkin put (together with Salieri’s venom) into Mozart’s mouth. Anyway, Chopin’s own interpretation of the piece wasn’t very mellow either. The composer requested the E minor prelude to be played at his funeral — that was probably the first and the only time this intimate piano piece was played on the imponent organ of the Church of the Madeleine in Paris. However, once a piece of art leaves the artist’s desk, who cares anymore about what was on his mind? An interpretation is born to live.

Being one of the most known pieces ever written for the piano, it has had thousands of different interpretations — some of them are great, some less so. In my own uneducated and un-authoritative view, Chopin’s E minor prelude is not so black-and-white sad and depressive. Like an ancient drama, it evokes almost a cathartic but overall positive feeling. Not suffocation, not death, but a homecoming. The reason for this sensation is a single chord — I’ll talk about it later. I cannot speak about homecoming without mentioning one very famous Alexander Blok’s poem which my mind inexplicably but inevitably associates with this word. Here is how it sounds in Russian with my English translation:

Девушка пела в церковном хоре
О всех усталых в чужом краю,
О всех кораблях, ушедших в море,
О всех, забывших радость свою.
A young girl sang in a temple’s choir
Of people tired in foreign domains,
Of ships that sailed from native havens,
Of all those striving their joy to regain.
Так пел ее голос, летящий в купол,
И луч сиял на белом плече,
И каждый из мрака смотрел и слушал,
Как белое платье пело в луче.
Her voice thus sang; and a sunbeam glittered
Shining bright on her shoulder’s white
And all from the darkness beheld and listened
Her candid gown sing in the light.
И всем казалось, что радость будет,
Что в тихой заводи все корабли,
Что на чужбине усталые люди
Светлую жизнь себе обрели.
It seemed to all that the joy was coming
The ships in calm waters would moor in peace
And tired men in distant countries
Would finally find their long-sought bliss.
И голос был сладок, и луч был тонок,
И только высоко, у Царских Врат,
Причастный Тайнам,- плакал ребенок
О том, что никто не придет назад.
So sweet was her voice to the bright vault flying
Yet, high above, in the altar’s black
Privy to secrets, a child was crying
That none of them would ever come back.

(One of the best renditions of this poem is, surprisingly, a commercial of the now-defunct Slavonic Bank — Славянский Банк.)

Akin to Chopin’s prelude, these four stanzas can be clearly segmented into two parts that start similarly and resolve with a very different ending. Adherently faithful to the ideas of the symbolistic movement, Blok uses the image of a young immaculate girl wearing white cloths and singing, with an angelic voice, a very simple and sincere prayer for the safe return of men who sailed into foreign countries. On the backdrop of this naive optimism, suddenly appears the symbol of a crying child (not clear if an earthly or a heavenly one) who, in his innocence, is aware of god’s design, inexorably conducting the reader to the last line that forebodes an ill ending. In the Russian original, the alliteration of the three н’s — никто не придет назад sounds hair-raisingly ominous, like a sudden minor chord in the middle of a mellow piece. Those three consonants tell the whole story: the deafening sound of swarms of shells pouring from the sky, the fierce blasts shattering the battleship superstructures, the shrieks of men torn into pieces by the splinters, the infernal heat of the flames setting steel ablaze, and the razor-sharp jets of water rushing through the breaches in the crippled hulls, crushing bulkheads and suffocating everyone trapped inside. Two dozen ships and four thousand seamen never came back home from the foreign seas — the chilly waters of the Sea of Japan became their resting place. May 1905. The battle of Tsushima.

It was a sobering experience for the arrogant Russian Empire. Militarily, it achieved what Little Boy and Fat Man did forty years later: it ended the war. Politically, Russia never recovered from this resounding face slap. Worker strikes, peasant unrest, and military uprising, including the famous battleship Potemkin mutiny, followed shortly; the resulting PTSD resolved only in 1917 with the October Revolution (usually known as the Great, which, ridiculously, happened in November — didn’t you know? And the Bolsheviks were actually a minority — sorry for breaking at once so many misconceptions.) The Tsushima defeat also had a huge impact on Russian society. The imaginative Blok was profoundly shocked by his country’s sending thousands of men to meaningless slaughter and, a few months after the events, wrote his famous poem.

Talking of Tsushima, I cannot refrain from mentioning a winged phrase that, in the wide sense, can also be considered a piece of poetry. On the morning of May 27th, after being informed of the Russian ships sighted in the Tsushima Strait, Admiral Heihachirō Tōgō, the commander of the Japanese Combined Fleet, informed his bosses in Tokyo that his forces would immediately attack and destroy the enemy. He ended this confident wireless message with the sentence: “good weather today, but waves are high” (本日天気晴朗ナレドモ浪高シ). Similarly to modern tweets, for technical reasons, Tōgō’s telegram had to fit into the limit of 20 Japanese symbols. His laconic words, almost like in a haiku, told a more detailed story: excellent visibility, high waves — no way to use torpedoes and mines. And everyone understood that the battle would be entirely decided by artillery as it, indeed, happened. But it’s time to say farewell to arms and return to piano music, which sounds undoubtedly better than the cannons.

Of course, Chopin’s E minor prelude describes no gunfight nor great historic events and is almost antithetic to Blok’s poem. It is about death, though, too. This is how I interpret it: I close my eyes and I try to imagine the face of a person I loved who is no longer with me. Everyone who tasted life has someone like that to try to recall. I personally think of two persons: one who succumbed to cancer with a shockingly emptying suddenness and another one who died peacefully after living a very long and serene life. (The latter was a dog, but does it really matter?) These two deaths were like a watershed in my life. Childhood’s end. Thinking of them evokes the most earnest and sincere feelings that a human being can feel. It is the deep sorrow for their departure, the nostalgia for not having them by your side anymore, and the fond sweet memories that come and go in waves — all this can be clearly heard in Chopin’s music. And it is also the feeling that the world is so unjust! And the anger — sometimes you hate them because they died, to the point of screaming out your rage and despair. Like Leopardi once brilliantly wrote,

Questo è quel mondo? questi
I diletti, l’amor, l’opre, gli eventi
Onde cotanto ragionammo insieme?
Questa la sorte dell’umane genti?
This is that world? These the delights,
the love, the works, the events
we so long reasoned of together?
This is the lot of human folk?

Listen to the tremendously expressive stretto part (measures 16-17) — it is all there!

But like the crying of Blok’s omniscient child, a single sound changes everything. It’s the C major chord in the 21st measure. A deceptive cadence, as musicians call it. Legends tell that ancient architects had a single stone that they would place at the center of the ceiling vault. La chiave di volta they would call it. It had a special cuneiform shape designed to withstand the immense forces exerted by the other stones. Take that mysterious stone out and the entire edifice will collapse to the ground (I’m not sure if that is totally true, but it is still a beautiful story.) In my view, Chopin’s secret chord is like that keystone — it holds the piece together. It changes everything. What it renders is the realization that persons dear to us don’t really disappear after their death; they remain for long in our memories. Like Stanisław Lem’s Terminus, we reenact them in our minds, see their faces, listen to their voices, ask for their wisdom. This makes us feel immortal, or at least, transcend the finiteness of our own life. Be however small, this is our victory over death. There are very few major harmonies in the prelude, and this major chord brings with it a powerful catharsis. A sunray shining through the lead-grey gloomy sky. A tiny green leaf in the wasteland, making its way through the scorched earth. From this point, the music can only have just one possible ending, and it finally resolves with an E minor chord. The last chord of this piece, and the only time the long-expected E minor quietly fills the air. Finally, the voyage is over. At last, we are home.

I spend innumerate nights pondering on Chopin’s score trying to understand the source for its so intimate sound. Of course, there are many explanations, but I think I grasped the tip of a truly fundamental one. It is best visualized with a plot. On the top, I’m showing a typical human breath and heartbeat pattern. The respiratory cycle at rest (plotted in red) repeats about 12 times a minute and has a pronounced asymmetry between the inhale (the lungs volume grows) and exhale (decreasing volume), with the typical ratio of 1:3. In blue below, I’m plotting a typical ECG signal representing the cardiac cycle; rest heart rates vary greatly, and I chose to plot an 80 bpm signal. Now look how well these two patterns are rendered in Chopin’s score: the right hand plays the sequence of 3/4-th and 1/4-th notes starting on the upbeat in (almost) every measure, while the left hand plays the ostinato 1/8-ths. This structure can be found in many other Chopin’s pieces, including the famous D♭ major prelude, number 15 — better known under the epithet raindrop to which the composer himself so vehemently opposed.

We are rarely aware of our heartbeat and breathing. It would be overwhelming otherwise, so our brain learned how to filter these rhythms. However, sometimes this filter shuts down. One of the incredible effects of drugs like LSD is the tangible, palpable sensation of your own breath and pulse. It contributes to the immense sense of intimacy — well, with yourself that these substances induce. It is truly overwhelming — I’m talking from experience. One of the recipes that NLP (neurolinguistic programming, not to be confused with natural language processing which is a real science) offers as a persuasion tool is to synchronize you to the breath and the walk rhythm of your interlocutor (I challenge these charlatans to synchronize the heartbeat too.) I never tried it myself, but I tend to believe that, be however laughable, there is something to this pseudoscientific recipe. (Of course, be discouraged from believing that you can really seduce a perfect stranger by talking nonsense in sync with her breath — it probably takes more than that.)

With his musical genius Chopin embodied deep physiological rhythms into the architecture of his music. He probably listened to his own heart and breath — even at the slowest range of his Largo tempo marking, 40 bpm, the corresponding heart rate reveals his own poor health. Already aware of his death sentence, was he wondering, like Mayakovsky, what effect will his music have on those who survive him, what impression will it leave?

И суетных дней взметенный карнавал
Растреплет страницы моих книжек…
Слов моих сухие листья ли
Заставят остановиться, жадно дыша?
And the carnival of vain days will, whirlingly,
throw the pages of my books apart…
Will ever the dry leaves of my verses
force you to stop, avidly gasping for air?

The listeners do stop to gasp for air, as they tune into Chopin’s compositions at the very lowest level of their biological hardware. Can there be anything more fundamental? I wonder, what perception would it create if one uses modern biofeedback technologies to synchronize the music playback to our body rhythms? Or, even better, to our emotional state? A totally new level of intimacy, perhaps? It is not totally impossible to conceive of such a device.

Chopin’s own heart flatlined on 17 October 1849, ten years after he finished his immortal opus 28. As requested by the composer, who was obsessed with the fear of being interred alive, his heart was removed and returned to Poland where it is preserved until today in an alcohol-filled container. Two years before, he ended his ten-year relationship with Aurore — quietly as everything he did in his life. He also returned to her all her letters — about two hundred in total. Privy to the belletristic business, Sand knew too well that one day some scoundrel publisher would have carelessly rummaged the suffered sentimental life of their improbable couple, so, similarly to Henry James’ heroine half a century later, she did the only natural thing that had to be done with the Chopin papers — she burned them one by one in her stove.

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