George Sand and Frédéric Chopin on the Isle of Majorca

One chapter of the book “Art Retreat 2020-21” is dedicated to the 210th anniversary of birth of the Polish composer Frédéric Chopin. During his stay with the French writer George Sand on the island of Mallorca, he wrote the world-famous “Rainbow Prelude”. Chopin’s dreamy Mallorca pieces flow into the creative contemplation of the pictures as musical recommendations. The editor of the book has assigned a selection of Chopin’s Mallorca Preludes op. 28 to the colors, both according to their key and according to their musical statement. Chopin had a copy of the preludes from the “Well-Tempered Piano” of Johann Sebastian Bach in his luggage and was inspired by it. It starts with C major and moves clockwise through the circle of fifths, which basically corresponds to the tonal order of colors in this book. When leafing through the color chapters, readers experience a relaxing effect. The shortness of the Préludes allows small-format paintings and haiku poems equally to appear often only as snapshots of a mood.

The Sound of Raindrops

The Majorcan mountain village of Valldemossa is a dreamy place. Surrounded by almond and olive groves, its intricate tangle of houses makes it seem like from a different time. The locals have a famous couple to thank for the tourists swarming the fragrant streets of the village during the day. French writer George Sand and Polish composer Frédéric Chopin spent the winter of 1938/39 in the rainy northwest of the picturesque island. Thousands of visitors come pouring into cells 2 and 4 of the Carthusian Monastery in Valldemossa every year, in search of what the couple left behind. The place is only 9 miles from Palma. Memorabilia on display include the Pleyel upright piano on which the famous raindrop prelude was heard for the first time.

George Sand, an exceptional woman

It was the bold idea of an adventurous woman to embark on what was possibly the first ever family trip to Majorca 150 years ago. Chopin’s wonderful preludes were composed thanks to Aurore Lucile Dupin (1804-76), a brave poet who used a male pen name, wore men’s clothes and liked to think outside the box to help preserve democratic rights. Her numerous love affairs were an expression of her freedom-loving nature. To her, the thought of a loveless marriage resembled being sentenced to work at the oar. She would rather have her books banned than betray her own soul or her friends. For this, she was not only loved but revered. “I miss her,” Gustave Flaubert wrote to her son Maurice after her death.

Convincing a man like Chopin to undertake a sojourn to Majorca must have taken a good measure of feminine charm. He followed Sand from Paris to Perpignan by stagecoach. Together, they went to Port-Vendre from where they left for Barcelona by ship. On the afternoon of 7 November, they embarked on the steamer “El Mallorquin” transporting pigs from the peasant island to Barcelona for an 18-hour crossing.

Winter in Majorca

In „Winter in Majorca”, George Sand vents her irritation with the locals. Although it rained for two months straight, the peasants kept insisting that it never rained on their island. In general, the encounter between them and the two unusual guests from Paris was a clash of two different worlds. Sand, the socially critical writer who preferred giving to the poor to serving the rich was disappointed in the islanders, especially concerning the way they treated her sick lover.

The doctor had recommended a warmer climate. Upon their arrival, however, the demanding guests from Paris were unable to find accommodation. Finally, they found their first lodgings at the beautifully situated country mansion Son Vent – “House of the Wind” – near Palma. The rainy weather made the lime walls soak up water like a sponge. While George Sand’s son Maurice recovered from his rheumatism, the composer was ailing with severe pneumonia, and his health increasingly deteriorated.

News of the “consumptive stranger“ quickly spread all over town. The couple were forced to whitewash the house at their own expense to kill off every last “pathogen”. Finally, they moved to an abandoned Carthusian monastery at the western edge of the island. Not a bad place for two romantics, but the peasants ostracized the unmarried couple that did not attend church, charging them exorbitant prices for groceries and letting them go hungry if they dared to try and haggle. The caring George Sand who had been known to publicly call her lover “our little one” and “our invalid” in Paris felt rejected and misunderstood.

Preludes of Melancholy

In spite of this, to George Sand, who had spent two years at an Augustinian convent as a young girl, initially joining the rebellious “devils”, the abandoned monastery was paradise on earth. She enjoyed the ivy and the flowers, the clean air and the blue sea. At least during the first and the last days of their three-months stay, the weather was splendid. Sand compared the shapes of the ancient olive trees around the monastery to giant wrestlers and coiled up boa constrictors.

To the sick Chopin, however, the monastery was a place full of terrors and phantoms, where he spent many sad and lonely hours. Returning from her long walks, George Sand bore witness to the creation of some of the most beautiful compositions in classical music – the cycle of 24 preludes, op. 28: She would find Chopin “pale at his piano, his eyes haggard, his hair standing almost on end. It would take him some moments to recognize us. He would make an effort to laugh, and he would play us the sublime things he had just composed…”

In her autobiographical volumes and reports, Sand continues: “’He saw himself drowned in a lake. Heavy drops of icy water fell in a regular rhythm on his breast, and when I made him listen to the sound of the drops of water indeed falling in rhythm on the roof, he denied having heard it.” Although Chopin denied the onomatopoeic connection between his famous raindrop prelude in D flat minor and the real rain, due to the frequent ostinati, millions of music lovers still associate it with the rain that tunefully hit the roof of the Carthusian monastery back then.

“… His fingers are only servants of his soul, and it is applauded by people who hear not only with their ears, but also with their souls. – Chopin is therefore the darling of that elite that seeks the highest spiritual pleasures in music. “

Heinrich Heine about Frédéric Chopin

Art Meditation

Imagine you are at an exhibition featuring the works in the book, mindfully observing them. Close your eyes and observe your breath, or listen to it, until you feel pleasantly calm. Pick a painting:

  • What is this artwork about? What is special about it?
  • Take your time and analyze the colors and shapes in this work. Feel their sound!
  • What spontaneous associations does this artwork trigger in you?
  • What would you say is “that certain something” about it – that mysterious aspect that is difficult put into words, and that has sprung directly from the artist’s soul?

Haiku Poetry

A woman, a rucksack,
Seagulls, the evening sun,
And the sea.

Silver raindrops gleam
Inside the ruby cornet
Of the deep petal.

Tears well up looking
Into the wilted garden.
November drizzle.

Undulating gold
The moon beaming in the midst
Of a star-drunk night.

After the long rain
The golden green of the creek
Offers redemption.

Atop a fleeting
Seagull blue, clouds, white like petals
Keep wandering.

A tender purple
Blooms upon the horizon
Into a rainbow.

Suddenly the sun
Comes out in a veil black dress.
Silver taffeta.

The text and the poems in this post are excerpts from the book “Art Retrat – Living with Pictures”, 2020-21, vol. 6.

Sources:

Armin Strohmeyr, George Sand, Eine Biographie, Reclam-Leipzig, 2004

George Sand’s “History of My Life”: https://www.upenn.edu/gazette/1102/1102gaz7.html Accessed on 12 April 2021, 3.35 p.m.

Source of the translation from George Sand’s “Winter in Majorca”: https://halloffame.classicfm.com/2013/chart/position/287/ Accessed on 13 April 2021, 11.56 a.m.

Johannes Jansen, Frédéric Chopin, dtv portrait, München 1999