The one-drop prelude

When I was in my twenties, I used to have the peculiar ability of lucid dreaming. It came unexpectedly and then gradually faded away almost entirely when my sleep patterns changed. The trivial statement that lucid dreaming merely amounts to controlling your dream doesn’t minimally render this amazing experience. It doesn’t even remotely resemble playing an Xbox. No, it feels as real as dreams can feel… but at the same time, some arcane part of the brain is aware that it’s just a dream and can steer it.

Sometimes an external stimulus like a blinking led of some piece of electronics or the rhythmic sound of raindrops would creep into the dream, grotesquely distorted — but most of the time the dream would appear as a totally isolated microcosm. Or so it seemed.

There was a particular dream that I saw once that I’m unlikely to ever forget. I was standing on the flat roof or a balcony of some tall building. It was really tall, and the ground below was very distant — partially hidden by clouds and discolored by atmospheric scattering. Below me lied an incredibly beautiful intricate landscape, illuminated by the tender colors of morning’s sun. Everything around seemed enchanted like… well, like in a dream.

A white jetliner passed by; it was flying very close, yet moving very slowly and in absolute silence. It was also beautiful, candidly white, reflecting the sun rays, and did not seem to disturb the frozen dreamy landscape.

Suddenly, to my surprise, I realized that the plane had no engines (and I think no wings too) and that it was doomed to crash onto the ground. At that very moment, obeying some surreal laws of physics, the plane started falling, quickly accelerating downwards, and I was following it with my sight, unable to look away, seized by the suffocating feeling of desperate helplessness.

I probably became aware that I was dreaming at that point, but it appeared as if an eternity had passed before I could reach the controls and remove the plane from the fragile enchanted scenery. And it never looked the same again — the terror of the just experienced agony somehow became imprinted everywhere in that view.

Some fifteen years have since passed, yet the memory of that thrilling sense of helplessness is still hair-rising. This was probably the most impressive dream I’ve ever dreamt.

Much later in my life, I experienced another powerful lucid dream. Totally lucid and awake but this time under the influence of one drop of water containing about 80 micrograms of LSD. I’ve always been a good boy, never smoked, rarely drank more than a glass of wine for dinner, and never touched drugs or any similar crap. However, I was really curious about the effect of LSD on sensory perception and one day decided to make that little experiment in a calm and friendly environment.

The sensory effect is hard to convey with banal superlatives, but the effect on sentiments and cognition defies any meaningful verbal description. It was doubtlessly one of the most intense experiences of my life comparable only to another state of intoxication — I mean, of course, being in love.

Like in the jet plane dream, what started as luxe, calme, volupté and indescribable beauty suddenly started shaking — and what previously pleased the senses first transformed into overwhelming, then became disturbing, then grew frightening and finally filled the brain with waves of deafening terror beating incessantly like a giant drum and filling every cell with anxiety.

After an eternity had passed and the effect of the drug started to fade away, with an immense effort of willpower, I was finally able to re-emerge to the surface from that black hole, gasp for a chestful of air, and see the stars.

In both the lucid and the acid dreams, what stroke me profoundly was how a dream full of light and beauty could suddenly transform into a dark and frightening nightmare and then yield to a calm dream again — but with a faint echo of the just experienced terror. Faint, yet strong enough to double my love of life and the desire to earnestly live the fleeting moment.

The mood change was so rapid that awe and fright seemed to coexist at the same moment. But the realization at the end that it was just a bad dream that passed had a cathartic effect — I’ve never felt better for many months hence. The old Kraut was right — whatever kills us not only makes us stronger.

However imperfect an allegory music can be, I find Chopin’s Db-major prelude a very vivid illustration of what is so incredibly difficult to convey with words (and, perhaps, just a little easier with sounds). At least, music affords more ample space for interpretation.

I wrote about Chopin’s preludes before and how he didn’t write many of them during his unhappy voyage to Mallorca with his lover Aurore Dupin, better known as the bestselling writer George Sand. However, it is nearly certain that the Db-major prelude, number 15 in Op. 28, was actually composed in the claustrum of the suggestive the Carthusian convent where Frédéric, Aurore, and her two teenage children found refuge in the uncozy Mediterranean winter.

One day Sand and her children went shopping in Palma and on their way back were caught in a bad thunderstorm. They returned very late, wet to the bones, and saw Chopin’s dark figure lit by faint candlelight playing a dark, ominous piece. When he became aware of their presence, the composer exclaimed “Here you are! I was sure you were all dead!” And then told Aurore that he had a dream and in the dream, he drowned in a lake, and large gelid raindrops were falling on his chest from the sky. When Sand invited him to listen to the violent rain pattering on the convent cell’s roof and suggested that it must have been those raindrops that inspired him to write the prelude, Chopin objected vehemently, almost offended by such a banal earthly interpretation.

This is, at least, how Sand herself recounts the incident in her book. But we cannot fully trust her — writers, like little children, often don’t distinguish between what is real and what is the fruit of their imagination.

It is very likely, however, that Sand’s memory — real or imaginary — gave the 15th prelude its present name, “raindrop”. This is the epithet that von Bülow, a very know Chopin’s interpreter from the 19th century, attached to the piece, certainly aware of the fact that the composer himself detested such labels (but he was already dead by that time and had no voice in the question). Since then, it is universally known as “the raindrop prelude”.

The prelude starts with a dreamy theme in Db-major. It is placid with a touch of melancholy, and the characteristic Ab note in the left hand insistently repeats eight times a measure. The theme climbs to a little tempestuous part only to return to a calm and dreamy mood. And then, only the beating Ab note remains, and the music shifts to the parallel minor key, C#-minor. It is a remarkably Chopinian style which is very common in many of his nocturnes, waltzes, impromptus…

The note continues to insist in the new key, but now it has a very different role — instead of being the subdominant it is now the dominant that fills the air with tension. It is exactly the same key on the keyboard, the same hammer, and the same strings — but you simply cannot play the new G# as you previously played the Ab.

The melody passes to the left hand, and the music becomes ominous, minacious, initially sotto voce, and growingly tense until it explodes with a deafening dramatic fortissimo. When playing it — just lean back away from the keyboard and fill the air with sound!

The despair that follows is impossible to convey with words. It darkens the day of light. But then the mood swings again, the threatening G# returns to be the innocuous Ab, and the dark C#-minor yields to the dreamy Db-major repeating the main theme. Before completely dying out, a very acute Bb sounds and this is the only moment when the incessant Ab stops for entire two measures — to resume and resolve into the quiet and placid final chords.

It is interesting that Alfred Cortot, another most renowned Chopin interpreter, never called this prelude “raindrop”. His label was “Mais la Morte est là, dans l’ombre” (But the Death is there, in the shadow).

I once watched a series of master class lectures by the Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield who spent many days in orbit and at some point served as the commander of the International Space Station. He talked with passion about how what you see from there is definitely not what you could ever see from here. One sentence impressed me in particular — he said: “we never fly to space with our fingers crossed. This is not how we deal with fear. The best remedy against fear is competence.”

I bet it is totally normal to have some amount of fear when a hundred-foot tall flame thrusts you through the atmosphere three times faster than sound with the crushing 4g acceleration. After all, besides being rational machines we are also sentient beings. But paralyzing fear would be harmful in this circumstance — unaffordably, deadly harmful — and is simply a symptom of insufficient competence.

Of course, Colonel Hadfield’s discourse about fear-fighting competence extended well beyond the technical skills of controlling a spacecraft or repairing equipment in open space. More importantly, it concerned developing and training the emotional maturity of facing death.

To my astonishment, the astronaut told how his wife and children were trained by NASA on a simulated event of their husband-father’s death. They were actually contacted and given a notice of his (simulated) demise, flown to Houston, and even released a (simulated) statement to the (fake) press. They knew exactly how it was going to happen shall the mission go awry. In short, they learned to be more competent to face that very tangibly possible event with less fear.

It takes a lot of competence to die unscarred in a simulation. Stanisław Lem described it very realistically how the awkward mediocre cadet Pirx managed to overcome an in-flight emergency on his first (as it later appeared, simulated) solo around the Moon, while his pilot course mate, the brilliant, always-a-winner cadet Börst went nuts when his rocket had ehm… burst, crashing into the Moon.

Unlike us grown-ups, little children often approach death with remarkable nonchalance. I’ll never forget my (then seven-year-old) son’s conversation with my father.
— Nonno, how old are you?
— Sixty-two.
— You look really old. Do you think you will live another five years?
— Well… hmm… I’ll try. I’ll do my best! Well, why?
— Because papà promised that we’d go to Antarctica when I’m 12. And I want you to see me with the penguins.

I think I myself grasped the notion of death around five or six years of age. I would frequently spend my weekends in my grandparents’ old home. It was in a semi-rural area and they had a septic tank to collect the sewage (a.k.a., the Pit). The Pit would fill up every now and then and had to be purged into the sewer with a thick rubber pipe. And I asked my grandfather with that naïveté that only a six-year-old child possesses: “and when you die, will the Pit fill up completely?”. It was obviously very urgent to understand that unforeseen consequence of death! I remember so vividly the adults’ shocked faces, completely unable even to pronounce an intelligible sentence let alone give a satisfactory answer… I remember it so painfully because fifteen years hence I was in that home again, but now with my grandfather on his deathbed and his life sifting away as sand sifts through the fingers. And then, ironically, the Pit filled up and he asked me to empty it for him. I held my tears while he was explaining the procedure, but once I was in the yard to connect the pipe, I simply cried out loudly…

Cortot was right about his title — death is there in the shadow, but you don’t understand it in the beginning, taking life for granted. And then you see the shadow… when you re-emerge back to the quiet dreamy Db major, the opening theme sounds again — only now each beat of Ab falls on the ground like a little memento mori — remember, it’s there, in the shadow… A cathartic realization that makes you want to earnestly exclaim, like Mario Cavaradossi, “e non ho mai amato tanto la vita!” (Never had I loved life so dearly!)

An image that perfectly fits Chopin’s mood-swinging music is a scene from Pushkin’s Mozart and Salieri. Yes, the very one that perpetuated the completely unrealistic legend that Salieri poisoned Mozart out of jealousy to his genius, forever ruining the Italian’s reputation. The poor bastard is now indeed remembered almost exclusively as the assassin of the genius composer.

At the beginning of Pushkin’s little tragedy, Mozart comes to Salieri’s home and tells him about a new piece he composed. He sits by the piano (well, most likely, the harpsichord) and sketches the following image:

Представь себе… кого бы?
Ну, хоть меня — немного помоложе;
Влюбленного — не слишком, а слегка —
С красоткой, или с другом — хоть с тобой,
Я весел… Вдруг: виденье гробовое,
Незапный мрак иль что-нибудь такое…
Ну, слушай же.
Picture… well, whom should you?..
Say, even me — a little younger, though;
In love — not much, just lightly — having fun
With a good-looking girl, or friend — say, you;
I’m merry… All at once — a deathly vision,
A sudden gloom, or something of that sort…
Well, listen.

The play is silent about what music Amadeus played on the day of his death. Quite a few of his pieces would fit the description. But, with the great musician’s license, I think he himself would agree that Chopin’s Db-major prelude is a perfect match to this picture.

In the play, Mozart confesses that he is haunted by the image of a mysterious black man who ordered him a requiem mass — and is superstitiously convinced that he is composing the mass for himself. Indeed, the real Wolfgang most likely died in hysterical fear of the black man, with his feverish lips chanting the incomplete Requiem.

Speaking of Russian poets and black men, it’s impossible not to mention another character famously tormented by a person in low-albedo cloths. Obviously, the very controversial figure, Sergei Yesenin.

A contemporary of his, Valentin Kataev, recollects in his book that once in an intimate environment of fellow poets and writers, Yesenin hugged him and said very quietly with endless suffering in his voice: Друг мой, друг мой! Я очень и очень болен. Сам не знаю откуда взялась эта боль… (My friend! My friend, I’m very very ill. I don’t know myself the source of this pain…) And it took them a while to understand that he was reciting his new poem…

In his poem, The Black Man, Yesenin describes his encounters with a hideous person dressed in a black tailcoat and top hat who comes to visit regularly at night and reprimands the poet for his indecent behavior and moral turpitude. Until one day he touches Yesenin’s particularly painful failed affair with a “woman around forty or so years of age” (most likely, the American dancer Isadora Duncan who happened to be Yesenin’s wife, albeit very briefly), and the poet casts him away thus:

«Черный человек! Ты прескверный гость!
Это слава давно про тебя разносится».
Я взбешен, разъярен, и летит моя трость
Прямо к морде его, в переносицу…
“Black Man! Never dare visit again!
Long has spread the fame of your disgrace.”
I’m enraged, possessed — and hurl my cane
Amid his eyes, into his morbid face…

And then, this is how everything ends:

…Месяц умер, синеет в окошко рассвет.
Ах ты, ночь! Что ты, ночь, наковеркала?
Я в цилиндре стою. Никого со мной нет.
Я один… И — разбитое зеркало…
…The moon died, the window is blue with the dawn.
What you’ve ruined again, Night oh dear!
On my head — a top hat. I’m standing alone.
Just myself… and a broken mirror…

Isn’t it a perfect depiction of what Chopin expressed in music? That reemergence to reality and — as the obstinate Ab string tolls — the inability to be totally sure whether the just lived terror was merely a bad dream or, perhaps…

What the LSD experience taught me is that what we call “sanity” is a razor-thin line surrounded by abysses of madness. It made me feel much compassion for the mentally ill.

By the time of writing his Black Man, Yesenin was already on a ballistic trajectory that several years later brought the poet to hanging himself in a hotel room, first leaving his famous farewell poem written with his own blood. (The poor fellow ran out of ink, apparently. And no, “Comrades, don’t shoot!” weren’t Yesenin’s last words before committing suicide, contrary to what the cynical Soviet joke suggests.)

But let’s cast our black men away (not with a walking cane, though — their lives matter, as there exists no light without shadows).

Another image that in my mind fits well the Db-major prelude is another Russian poem, this time Nerkasov’s Зеленый Шум, literally meaning The Green Noise. Of course, the nonsensical name did not refer to the prevalence of mid-frequencies in the noise’s power spectrum. Because of the cryptic title, the poet felt compelled to leave a dry footnote: “by this name, the folk refers to the awakening of nature in spring.” The common explanation is that the expression was referring to the noise made by the foliage at the top of the trees.

However, I think philologists and critics should have done their homework better. I’m sure the word comes from deeper Slavic roots. While in modern Russian the word “шум” means exclusively “noise”, its older ancestors could also mean “grove” (like šuma in Croatian and other affine languages).

As every student in a Russian (pardon, Soviet) elementary school, I also had my share of the immortal classics and, of course, studied the great poet’s opus. The teachers exalted how the poem described the arrival of spring in a colorful folk language that only Nekrasov’s genius could produce.

Genius or not, the verses are indeed filled with unique archaic and folkloristic language, vocabulary, and manner so characteristic to Nekrasov’s writing. And it is totally untranslatable, so I won’t even bother trying. But if you, like myself, also believed for years that the poem was about the joyful arrival of Spring — it’s never late to actually read it in its entirety and convince yourselves that nothing can be farther from reality.

On the backdrop of the colorful spring’s arrival, the narrator’s wife, Natalia Patrikeyevna (what a weird patronymic!) got a little carried away — it must also be the influence of mighty Spring, as poor Werther used to sing. In any case, spring and summer fly away, and the husband is left with her locked down in their dwelling for the entire duration of the winter (which is not particularly hospitable in the Russian countryside), ridden with unpronounced struggles: whether to kill the unfaithful female or to spare her and live with his stained honor (quite interesting what moral dilemmas of those times looked like). He sharpens his knife (I sincerely thought axes were more in fashion) and sets the crime scene — but then… then comes Spring again! At the sounds of the all-powerful Green Noise, the sharpened weapon falls from the wretched could-be murderer’s hand and he decides that it’s better to enjoy the weather, live, love, and forgive as long as one can. Curtain, applause. No dead bodies.

I admit, it is rather hard not to think about this story when listening to or playing the prelude.

I wish one day an inventor will build such a source of green noise that could stop potential murderers from committing their macabre “crimes of passion”. Until that happens — let’s live, love, and enjoy Chopin’s music as long as we can.

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