Echoes in Rain

Autograph copy of Chopin’s op. 28 Prelude #15. (Credit)

Echoes in rain
Drifting in waves
Long journey home
Never too late…

Outside, the sun shines, but inside, the raindrops fall, a passing shower of April dripping from headphones early on a Wednesday morning.  I am transported at once, back almost 40 years, by music seldom heard in the ensuing years, yet as familiar as the streets of my childhood.

Here it is, then, my bedroom. I am not sure if the bedspread is tan or blue, but the carpet is green, and the square overhead lamp shines, illuminating a few tiny corpses of gnats trapped in its concavity.  Here, there is a plant in a macrame hanger; there, a mobile of horses, each at the end of a slender wire, in full gallop, but I am passing out of that era of my life and into this one.  My tinny record player has recently been replaced by my parents’ old stereo, and so the record currently playing can convey the subtleties of Chopin, my current obsession.

Somewhere, in a book I had read, a work of fiction, a character I had adored was a pianist, with Chopin his favourite composer. Reading about Chopin himself, I had learned the details of his brief life–his young brilliance and virtuosity in Poland, where he was born, his peregrinations through Vienna and Paris as his homeland descended into turmoil, his tumultuous relationship with the sensual and unconventional Aurore Dudevant (better known as George Sand), and his illness and death from tuberculosis. I was in the eighth grade and in love, much as my contemporaries mooned over pop stars like Andy Gibb.  It didn’t particularly matter that he was dead.  The music spoke eloquently, powerfully, and I could bend my passion around its notes.

None were more moving to me than the Preludes, op. 28, 24 short pieces for solo piano, one in each major and minor key.  Each pair of preludes (major and minor) follows the circle of fifths, adding a sharp up through the thirteenth prelude, in F# major (six sharps), and then switches over to flats in the fourteenth, the corresponding key of E minor (enharmonically identical to the six-sharp D# minor).  The circle is completed by subtracting one flat from each subsequent pair of preludes.  This whole cycle was composed while Chopin was on a disastrous holiday in Majorca with Sand, one in which he was first diagnosed with tuberculosis, meaning the lovers were banished to a derelict monastery, the only place they could find to stay, away from the fearful local population.  Having fled Paris in the winter of 1838-9 to escape the damp weather, the couple discovered that the climate of Majorca is mercurial, ranging from mild to gusty and windy–certainly not helping Chopin’s health. Nothing quite evokes this as much as the 15th prelude, the one D major, that most associate with raindrops (although Chopin was said to have hated that description).  The effect of rain is created by the repetition of the note A/G♯ throughout the piece, including in the C# minor centre section, when it seems as if the wind picks up, blowing ominously in the form of darkened chords, only to resolve back to the gently falling notes in D major. There is a lot of space and silence in this prelude. Picture an abandoned monastery at the side of a lake during a rain shower, the water falling on the window panes and streaming down, the air chill and moist.  You’ll need a sweater and a hot toddy, perhaps.

The effect of this work–not just the D major prelude, but the entire sequence of 24– on me was so profound that I begged my parents to buy a piano so I could start lessons.  My piano teacher was the mother of a boy one year behind me in my split-grade class in elementary school, a talented violinist who had gone to the other junior high. I thought it terribly significant that he shared a first name with Chopin.  (Alas, no romance would ensue).  As was typical for me in those years, I somehow believed that just knowing and loving  and understanding the music and its history would translate magically into skill in playing it.  Of course, it did not, but I played my vinyl recording of the work over and over and over again until, one day, a few years later, I played it for the last time.  And then it was forgotten. I had moved on.   I did not buy it on CD when I switched to that format around 1986. I had stopped the piano lessons as well, knowing that I would likely never develop the technical skill to play anything so demanding. It had stopped speaking to me, or rather, other works had taken precedence.    And so, I filed the memory of its sounds somewhere deep inside my brain.

This morning, I ran across this article about tuning in classical music, a topic that has long fascinated me, from the first time I tuned my violin to match the vibration of a tuning fork, A=440.  I was familiar with most of the content of the article, including the idea of equal temperament (allowing the avoidance of the infamous “wolf intervals”–although the article does not specifically mention them).  Included at the bottom of the article were videos of all of Chopin’s op. 28 preludes, played on a piano tuned in unequal temperament.  Interested in how that sounded (and whether the wolf would howl in any of them), I pushed play…and immediately was transported back to the floor of my bedroom circa 1981.  Even though I hadn’t heard these pieces played in perhaps 35 years, they were like slipping into an old sweater that had been packed away, grown slightly musty, perhaps, but every thread, the cut of the sleeves, the part on the elbows that always pilled is as it was, again, now. The unusual temperament led more drama to some of the preludes, and while the wolf didn’t precisely howl, it certainly lurked around the perimeters, adding to the effect of hearing and feeling these works through the distance of years.

Someone else is in that east-facing room now.  Others have passed through on the way, including my own mother, in the early days of her dementia, who took to sleeping there in my bed, turned round to lay in about the place my stereo once sat.  A subsequent occupant painted the room a deep purple and filled it with their own ephemera, items not known to me.  I can no longer go there physically, but Chopin’s works transcend time and space.

Humans often wonder whether time travel is possible.  With music, it is.

Here are the three videos of the Preludes I listened to:

Temperament wasn’t precisely the topic of my own post, but YouTube suggested this video after the Chopin ones, of a Mozart piece played in three different temperaments–the first modern, and the final one being what was in common use during Mozart’s lifetime.  I may have to write on temperament in the future.  It’s a fascinating topic.

The title of the post and the lyrics are from an Enya song, which has its own feel of falling raindrops.