Book of the Week: Chopin’s Piano

4 Jun|Paul Kildea

The former Carthusian monastery in Valldemosa where Chopin and George Sand lived

In November 1838 Frédéric Chopin and his lover George Sand sailed to Mallorca to escape the Parisian winter. After some trouble finding a decent place to stay, they finally settled in an abandoned monastery, where Chopin finished his 24 Preludes on a small pianino made by a local craftsman. In his charming and extensively researched new book, Paul Kildea, former artistic director of Wigmore Hall, traces the history of the Preludes and the pianino, from the Romantic period through to the Second World War and Nazism. We reproduce an extract below.

Tomorrow I am going to that marvellous monastery at Valldemossa,’ Chopin wrote to Fontana from Palma, where they had fled during the worst of the rains, ‘to write in the cell of some old monk who perhaps had more fire in his soul than I have but stifled it, stifled it and put it out, for it was of no use to him. I expect to send you my Preludes and Ballade shortly.’ Bauza’s pianino was transported the sixteen kilometres up the mountains to its new home in a birlocho – an open-sided mule-drawn cart – navigating a spider’s web of terrible dirt tracks (‘roads are made by the torrents and repaired by landslides’, Chopin observed dryly), none offering any more obvious or logical a route than the next.

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In 1838 it was a sparsely populated hill town. Even so, the monastery and their three-room cell, once inhabited by Chopin’s imagined old monk with stifled soul, lifted their mood. Chopin thought the local villagers rogues to a man – peddling a barrow load of oranges for a mere maravedí or two, yet charging vast sums for a trouser button – but was captivated by the eagles high in the skies above the monastery, surfing the thermals rising from the valleys, or swooping down to carry off sparrows from the pomegranate tree in the courtyard. He was captivated too by the glorious moon and the everchanging colours of the landscape at sunset – not the alluring pinks, bright purples, silvery mauves and pure transparent blues of Establiments, but a whole other sequence of shades, which cut across the valley, blue-tinged and darker, more menacing, shorter-lived, shaped by the altitude and surrounding mountains.

Sand too was enraptured by the landscape, its wildness and unpredictability, pockmarked randomly by twisted, bent trees. She loved the thorns guarding beautiful flowers, the velvet moss and rush carpeting the ground, the stone-studded paths that slipped without notice into a ravine, the woods scattered with large rocks, as if from the sky, the fast streams running by dense bushes of myrtle and woodbine, and the solitary farmhouse, an oasis in such wilderness.

Chopin wrote to Fontana:

Palma. 28 December 1838
or rather Valldemossa, a few miles away; between the cliffs and the sea a huge deserted Carthusian monastery where in a cell with doors larger than any carriage-gateway in Paris you may imagine me with my hair unkempt, without white gloves and pale as ever. The cell is shaped like a tall coffin, the enormous vaulting covered with dust, the window small. In front of the window are orange-trees, palms, cypresses; opposite the window is my camp-bed under a Moorish filigree rose-window. Close to the bed is an old square grubby box which I can scarcely use for writing on, with a leaden candlestick (a great luxury here) and a little candle. Bach, my scrawls and someone else’s old papers . . . silence . . . you can yell . . . still silence. In short, I am writing to you from a queer place.

Chopin’s Piano: A Journey Through Romanticism (Allen Lane, £20) is published on 7 June. Paul Kildea is speaking at the Idler Festival in July. He’ll be telling the story of keyboard player Wanda Landowska, who rescued Chopin’s pianino from Valldemossa in 1913, and playing Chopin and Bach on Fenton House’s harpsichord. Buy tickets here.