A Sky like Turquoise

Excerpt from Chopin’s Prelude in D flat, “The Raindrop Prelude”
Wikimedia Commons.

Have you ever had one of those vacations that you looked forward to that turned out to be, well, let’s say, not quite what you planned? I understand that with the pandemic and travel restrictions, it may have been some time ago. But think back, can you remember one? If you do, rest assured, you are in good company.

Frédéric Chopin spent the winter of 1838-39 on the island of Mallorca with Amantine Lucile Aurore Dupin, better known by her pen-name, George Sand. The couple had two good reasons for not staying in Paris that winter. The first was their hope that Mallorca’s climate would benefit Chopin’s health; the second was to escape the gossip about them. Sand was married at the time, just not to Chopin.

The trip got off to a bad start. The couple traveled first to Barcelona to catch a ship to Mallorca. Spain was in the midst of a civil war. Soldiers and conflict were all around Chopin and Sand. When they did get to Mallorca, they found accommodations in short supply. Many refugees from the Spanish mainland had fled to the island. That lessened the number of places available to the couple. With some assistance, they found a place they both liked. This put Chopin in good spirits. On November 19, 1838, he wrote to his friend Julian Fontana in Paris.

“I am in Palma, among palms, cedars, cacti, olives, pomegranates, etc. Everything the Jardin des Plantes has in its greenhouses. A sky like turquoise, a sea like lapis lazuli, mountains like emerald, air like heaven. Sun all day, and hot; everyone in summer clothing; at night guitars and singing for hours. Huge balconies with grape-vines overhead; Moorish walls. Everything looks towards Africa, as the town does. In short, a glorious life!”

Frederic Chopin. Chopin’s Letters (Dover Books on Music) (p. 185).

The good feeling didn’t last long. Coming back from a walk, Chopin got caught in the rain and got sick. The next letter to Fontana, December 3, 1838, was quite different in tone.

“I have been as sick as a dog these last two weeks; I caught cold in spite of 18 degrees of heat, roses, oranges, palms, figs and three most famous doctors of the island. One sniffed at what I spat up, the second tapped where I spat it from, the third poked about and listened how I spat it. One said I had died, the second that I am dying, the 3rd that I shall die.”

Ibid, p. 186.

The diagnosis was tuberculosis and was dutifully reported to the island authorities by the doctors. As a result, Chopin and Sand were evicted from the villa they had rented. The place was whitewashed, all the furniture destroyed, and the linen burned. And the bill was sent to Sand. They moved to rooms (cells) in an abandoned monastery up in the mountains. Chopin tried to put the best light on it. “I shall lodge in a huge, old, ruined monastery of Carthusians….It is near Palma, could not be lovelier; porches, the most poetic of cemeteries; in a word, I shall be happy there.” [Ibid]

Well, he wasn’t happy there. The place was cold and drafty. The couple stayed a couple of months and then returned to France. In their short time in Mallorca, Chopin and Sand’s relationship morphed from being lovers to being patient and nurse. It continued for some time but finally stumbled to a close in 1847. Chopin died in 1849. 

I turn to something now that happened to me when I was in the Army. I was in Germany, stationed with an artillery unit in Germany’s south. The area was beautiful. My former wife was with me. After we were in Germany for a while, my then-in-laws planned to visit us. Of course, I wanted them to have a great experience. My former wife and I did some research and decided on a place in Bavaria. We booked the rooms and looked forward to spending time together as a family. 

My wife and I arrived at our destination a day ahead of her parents. That evening we walked by a gorgeous lake, and I thought of how impressed my in-laws would be. I noticed, however, that there were not many other people around. To tell the truth, there weren’t any. At first, I thought that was a good thing. After dinner that evening, I stopped by the front desk to inquire about local sights to see and things we could do. 

The man with whom I spoke told me that it was the off-season, that everything was closed. And he meant everything. Suddenly, I didn’t feel well and could only think of how embarrassed I would be when my in-laws showed up the next morning. But the man with whom I was speaking was extraordinary. He asked me to wait while he made a phone call. When he hung up, he told me I had reservations at the military hotel in Garmisch-Partenkirchen. Not only that, however; he had also arranged for me, an enlisted man, and my in-laws to be in rooms usually reserved for officers.

To this day, the time we spent at Garmisch-Partenkirchen is at the top of all the places I saw in Europe. The next morning, when our family arrived, I quickly explained what had happened, and we went to our new location. I vividly remember standing near the doorway of my in-law’s room, my father-in-law studying a music score on the balcony. When I greeted him, he turned to me and said, “I feel like I’m on a movie set. This place is perfect!”

What could have been a disaster turned out very well indeed! My experience in Germany was quite different than Chopin’s in Mallorca. But there is something that Chopin accomplished in Mallorca. And all of us can benefit from it more than one hundred and eighty years after the time he spent with George Sand on the island. Chopin completed his Preludes. I want to share one of them with you. It is commonly called the Raindrop. Formally, it is Chopin’s Prelude in D-flat Major, Op. 28: No. 15. He wrote the Prelude while living in the abandoned monastery.

Here is Lang Lang’s performance of the piece. I encourage you to imagine yourself, while listening to it, seated in a cold cell in a used-to-be monastery with Chopin playing the work for you. You’re not cold; you’re not wet. You are as close to heaven as you can get without dying.

If you would like to know more about Chopin’s time in Mallorca, I recommend you listen to a lecture by Professor Alan Walker based on selections from his biography of the composer: Fryderyk Chopin: A Life and Times. His talk is a little over a half-hour long but well worth the time invested. You can find it here.

I’m genuinely sorry that what Chopin had looked forward to with so much anticipation turned out to be such a disappointment to him personally. But I am forever grateful for what Chopin created in Mallorca.

All the best,
Gershon

Author: Gershon Ben-Avraham

Gershon Ben-Avraham is an American-Israeli writer. He lives in Beersheba, Israel, on the edge of the Negev Desert. He and his wife share their lives with a gentle blue-merle long-haired collie. Ben-Avraham earned an MA in Philosophy (Aesthetics) from Temple University. His short story, “Yoineh Bodek,” (Image) received “Special Mention” in the Pushcart Prize XLlV: Best of the Small Presses 2020 Edition. Kelsay Books published his chapbook “God’s Memory” in 2021. חב"ד‎

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