Fryderyck’s arrival was as unforgettable as his playing. As the door opened, so his eyes alighted on me, and didn’t waver until he’d crossed the room and depressed a single note; B2. The instant the hammer hit the strings I saw his gaze move briefly heavenwards and his shoulders slump. OK, so I wasn’t what he wanted. But this is Majorca. You wouldn’t expect a world class piano to arrive at your door in a ramshackle monastery 9kms from Palma at a days notice, would you? My frame had barely settled from the rickety cart journey up the mountain road; what did he think I’d be like?
Without removing his coat, the long-faced man sat down cautiously on the chair placed in front of me and looked over me once again. Uneven breathing and pallid skin suggested he’d either come to Majorca to convalesce, or to die; either way our visitor from Paris wasn’t looking very good. Doleful eyes now surveyed my keyboard. Slowly, aristocratically, he lifted his hands and straightened his back; there was no emotion in his face. I didn’t even know if he could play.
I only knew I was being sent to this place on that morning of the 15th December 1838. A tall elegant French woman had come to our works in Mission Street, Palma and requested to rent a piano for a friend. My Spanish master, Juan Bauza, who had built me six years previously, seemed slightly suspicious of her, but agreed to her request. Dressed as she was in smart gentleman’s clothing might have contributed to his suspicion. She paid in cash for one months rent and, without even trying me, left the building. Having been the teaching piano at the works and suffered students crashing through their scales for years, an excursion to the mountains seemed like a welcome change. After the torturous journey to get here and suffering such indifference from this snooty consumptive however, I began to feel like I’d drawn the short straw after all.
Without warning, his eyes opened wider and he inhaled gently with an audible rasp; the third finger of his right hand hovered briefly above E flat 4. It began; an explosion of joy and triumph as he launched into the opening fanfare of a majestic Waltz. I’d never felt so soft and assured a touch. His hands floated across the keyboard with a tenderness I’d never experienced before – it was as if he didn’t believe in playing loudly. His fingering was verging on madness and his elbows were held to his sides – no one was taught to play like this! Small feminine fingers danced up and down with a flexibility and finesse I didn’t think was possible. He hadn’t even warmed up. He was still in his coat.
The piece was short and when he’d finished, he left as abruptly as he’d arrived. I stood alone and aghast with strings still ringing and damper felts vibrating with pleasure. I felt embarrassed. Who was this man? Who else could ever have played me like that. I wasn’t special, but Fryderyck made me feel like he was able to use me to express his innermost thoughts. I wanted it again.
I didn’t see him for the rest of that day, although I heard him speaking in accented French with a woman in the adjacent room. I guessed it was the lady that had rented me earlier in the day, though their words were too muffled to understand what was being said. I didn’t know whether he’d be playing me again. I also heard him coughing uncontrollably. Pitiful, painful coughs interspersed with sympathetic sounding words from her. He really wasn’t very well.
Later that evening when the two of them came into the room, she prepared his bed in the far corner as he sat melancholically on the chair. It seemed like she was putting a child to bed. There were all sorts of potions on the small square desk beside the bed in the largely spartan room; she gave him two small cupful’s to drink before helping him under the covers and leaving the room. Glancing back briefly at the door as he looked pathetically after her, she murmured,
“Goodnight my Chop Chop!” He didn’t reply. He looked afraid.
The tiny window of the cell – for these rooms were in the recently abandoned Valldemossa monastery – looked out onto a small darkened courtyard; vine leaves framed the view of the valley below with its oranges, palms and cypresses, and warm Mediterranean breezes wafted in and flickered the candle.
Our first night was interrupted by his repeated coughing fits. At times I feared that he wouldn’t get through. Finally, after a couple of hours of unbroken sleep, Fryderyck was up at six. The sun was poking over the ridge to the east and its glow oozing into the room. After disappearing for breakfast, he returned to the room and prepared to go for a walk. He seemed in better spirits. His glances towards me were promising. He had something on his mind.
During my years at the works, the large room where I stood was used three times a week for choir practice for the church next door. As well as suffering their piano lessons, the young choristers and their master would learn the mass for the weekend ahead – I was used to accompany them. Thankfully it seemed that singing came easier to them than piano playing. Over the years there were a number of occasions where Requiem masses were rehearsed for up-coming funerals. These were sombre affairs and I was glad I didn’t have to attend them. Elements of all the music I was involved with were imprinted in my voice; consequently, as time passed I think my tone grew more wistful.
The warmth of that second day sharpened me up as the last of the recent damp weather evaporated from my timber frame. Fryderyck’s return from his walk was marked by him bursting into the room and hurriedly scrabbling around among the various books and papers on the desk. There was an air of desperation as he pulled out sheets of empty music paper, a quill, and ink and put them on my lid. Sitting at the chair he immediately started to play. He was composing. He’d been dreaming of this new work on his walk that morning and had come back to write it down. The opening bars were slow and discordant…I’d never heard anything so ugly before. Then the melody began a baleful appeal. I got it! I heard what was happening. The discordant chords of the left hand were playing out the opening notes of the melody of the Gregorian chant, Dies Iraes – ‘Day of wrath and doom impending’. I recognised it from the Requiem masses sung by the choristers. Was Fryderyck foretelling his own death? The pain described in the notes and of Fryderyck’s feelings for them was electric. He suddenly stopped playing and started to scribble notes on the manuscript like he was possessed. He wrote quickly and erratically. He’d stop, get up and pace the room. He’d hum sections to himself and then play them over and over again with the tiniest of alterations – before scribbling again on the manuscript. It took two hours. The 23 bars of Fryderyck Chopin’s second Prelude in A minor was all but completed before lunch. He was both exhilarated and exhausted.
This was just the beginning of our time together. Over the next few weeks Fryderyck wrote another three gloomy preludes and a Mazurka. If he wasn’t composing, he played his beloved Bach. Each new composition was conceived on a walk or whilst sat peacefully in the sunny courtyard, and then in a fit of nervous desperation, he’d have to write it down – sometimes it could take days. During this time an elderly neighour, Elvira, began to help cooking and cleaning for the French woman – who, as well wearing men’s clothes, called herself George. Her two children were also around the place, but they rarely came into Fryderyck’s room so I didn’t see them much. The old lady helped George care for Fryderyck. She sat with him through the night when he was poorly and administered his potions when he pleaded for them in the darkness. I began to feel that she was helping out so that she could simply spend more time with the frail genius in her care. She’d slip quietly into the room when he was working and stand motionless against the wall as he paced about and fretted over his manuscripts. She never spoke and although he appeared to ignore her completely, Fryderyck knew she was there. Nothing was ever said.
I did, however, hear the two women speak about him when he was out for walks. It was obvious that George loved him dearly – to her he was an angel of patience, gentleness and goodness. Fryderyck could do no wrong in her eyes. It was clear also that whatever her past, she’d never done anything like this for anyone before. She’d previously been a woman of substance who’d not cared for anyone but herself. Elvira understood very little that was said to her but it seemed that George had to share her disquiet with someone. Her late nights and the strain of looking after her sick lover and her children was clear. Her cigar smoking – she smoked large cigars – was heavier than before.
However much George loved and cared for him, I knew that Fryderyck needed more than just her at this time. There were tender moments between the two of them when he was well, but these were rare. It was me that he really needed. He talked to me in hushed whispers as he played. I was the sole object of his attention when he was in the room – be he awake or asleep. Nothing else mattered. He loved how I reacted to his touch and he knew I was working with him every moment we were together. My hardest task, though, was to stay in tune. Wooden framed pianos are susceptible to the slightest changes in temperature and barometric pressures and I knew that I couldn’t be heard to fail. It took every ounce of control to keep my shape and tension. I couldn’t let him down. I must have succeeded as the tuning iron sent with me from the works never left the desk.
In the middle of January everything changed. The air of excitement one morning in the house was palpable; it not only got George up early from her bed – she usually slept through till the afternoon as she only wrote through the night – but also had Fryderyck laughing and joking with Elvira as they cleared a space in the middle of the room. The fact that neither of them could speak each other’s languages made their laughing all the more amusing to me – but he was clearly excited about something. Then it arrived.
Four men turned up with a huge grand piano….. Chopin’s Pleyel piano had finally arrived from Paris – apparently it had been stuck at the harbour customs office for some weeks. At that moment my life was put on hold. The Pleyel was erected in the middle of the room and Fryderyck never touched me again. He never even looked at nor spoke to me. Not a glance, not a word.
The Pleyel was not only beautiful to look at but her tone was stunning. Fryderyck’s face lit up as he caressed her keys. He played for an hour without a break. He replayed the four Preludes that we’d worked so hard to compose. He made more changes. I wasn’t angry. I was just sad.
Six weeks later, George, Fryderyck and the two children suddenly decided they would be leaving Majorca and returning to Paris. My sacking was complete. Such was the strength of feeling of the local women about the unconventionality of the group and Fryderyck’s tuberculosis, they weren’t allowed to take any of their possessions; everything was to be burned. I was to be burned. The Pleyel was bought by a wealthy French woman on the island that had befriended the couple, so was spared. On the day they left, the removal of all their chattels was to take place. Elvira, however, had other ideas and in the dead of the night she came into Fryderyck’s room with two men and I was taken away. They put me here in one of the tunnels under the Monastery where the monks would hide in times of strife. I have been here ever since. Elvira died in 1850 and no one knows that I’m here. One day they’ll find me. They’ll also find the real second Ballade that Fryderyck wrote during his time with me and dedicated to Elvira. It is tucked under my keyboard.
Copyright © 2017 by Simon Bever. All Rights Reserved