The Keyboard at Majorca

Joseph O’Brien

Between November 8, 1838 and February 13, 1839, Frederic Chopin accompanied George Sand and her two children Solange and Maurice to Majorca to restore his failing health. Met with a growing animosity by the Majorcan natives who soon realized this couple was not married, Chopin and Sand were forced to take up residence in an abandoned Carthusian monastery on the island outside the town of Valldemossa. Considered one of his most productive periods of composition, these three months on Majorca yielded some of Chopin’s most exquisite compositions—including his best preludes, ballades, and polonaises.

Where monks had once intoned their Easter Mass
   With bells, Majorca’s foggy winter
Now counsels death in secret briefs with night
Against my living. Summer’s losing bloom
    Has rest and music crossed on purpose—
An irony of island dreams in sand:
    She comes . . . she goes—it’s all that’s blowing
Through dark and dampened corners of my soul.
Too young to grow so old . . . I learned to please
    My mother first, then Pater, Sister
(Dear Sister!), teachers… one by one, at last
   Until my mistress music mastered
The heart: prelude, ballade, and polonaise—
   So adulation served as mentor,
But even praises faded . . . . Warsaw’s fight
Had failed to wake the world; with throaty doom
The cannonade had sung cacophonous
Sonatas. Fate had raped our motherland;
   Again—her children’s blood was flowing
As Europe shoved her into history’s hole.
Now all I feel is waste, decay, disease—
   In falling rain, the themes will fester
And burst at last—I break into the past
   With keys both black and white, sequestered
Upon Majorcan shores. The natives pass
   My window, trading rumor’s banter
In sharpened tones. The beaches’ major white
Dissolves in minor grey and clocks presume
   Their price upon the daily purchase
Of time. I watch the waves beyond the strand,
   The force of bloodless rhythm’s slowing.
The built momentum crashes like the bell
That once had rung to tell the Angelus—
   Such tolling faith, not mine to foster,
Bespoke the grace Carthusians had amassed
   And Majorcan flocks had pastured.
The only faith I have is that which loss
   Can save. The past and future splinter
My heart, now martyr red, now ghostly white . . . 
Polonia! What you and I’ve become!
   Our exiled souls forever trespass
No matter where we go! I make no stand
   Except for music’s honor, owing
My pledge to eight and eighty* muses who’ll
Invite my touch while pledging bond’s release
   By perfect fifths. I’ve often missed there
By eighths, by flats, a second slow, a quarter fast . . . 
   Ill-timed too, all this talk of bastard
And mistress . . . Gossip, Valldemossa! Crass
   Invidiousness, prying slander
Well suit your vatic ruins. Pallid white
These bones your dusty tongues with lies exhume.
   With Amandine, Solange and Maurice
(Your children, inmates with us), you hand
   To me the Christmas flowers growing
In summer rebellion against our cruel
And tragic winter. Florid fantasies,
   Would come to me that way too, cluster
Like fingers playing on the wind and blessed
   With tunes of azure, crimson, mustard . . . .
Arriving in November, making less
   Of doctor’s orders, more for splendor,
We picnicked on the shingle. Nights we’d fight,
Then love at dawn—or flee the breakfast room
   To watch the terns dissect a porpoise
That beached the night before. I understand
   How life is gone when love is going . . . 
Such suns are brief that shadows can console—
Such burdens end when lashing out with keys
   Can turn the dexterous by sinister
Conveyance. Cast as life’s iconoclast,
   Romance remains a craft that’s mastered
The same as any art: Our last embrace,
   I kissed your hands. “The hands of an enchanter,”
I said. Such little ironies excite
Your heart beyond the tethered metronome—
   Your heart, so wry, sublime and heartless . . . 
As if my fingertips caressed but sand—
   My heart would seek amendment, knowing
Its constitution broke in Paris, full
Of grief and emptying spleen with restless cause
   Upon the parchment’s alabaster:
The marshaled clefs and staffs became the grist
   Of detonating strings that roistered
For revolution! Flashing bolts caress
   The strike! As I grow frail and gaunter,
These keys will seek a grave and final note,
Unlocking sound against—beyond—the tomb.

*Poetic license invoked: Chopin’s beloved Pleyel which he had with him on Majorca had only 85 keys (missing the bottom A, A-minor, and B keys found on most grand pianos).