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Sunday 20 October 2019

Chopin excelled in romance but love was a challenge


Frédéric Chopin
Frédéric Chopin

George Hamilton

On a break in Majorca, we found ourselves retracing the steps of Frédéric Chopin. The master of the piano, the quintessential romantic of the keyboard, suffered from chest problems and had spent a winter on the island.

When he went to Majorca in 1838, Chopin was involved with a French writer who called herself George Sand. Almost six years older than him, she was separated, had two children, and didn't follow the social conventions of the time.

Her feminism expressed itself in a tendency to wear men's clothes, and smoke cigars. When they met at a party, Chopin was repulsed. On his way home, he wondered out loud if this George Sand was really a woman. But she could trace her roots back to Poland where he had been born, and this formed the connection. On their next meeting, she wore a white dress with a red belt – the Polish national colours – and Chopin was smitten.

They were attracted to Majorca because they thought the Mediterranean climate would be better than the cold damp of the Parisian winter, but they hadn't realised the darker months there can be just as grim.

And when they arrived, things went from bad to worse. The deeply religious locals were not impressed by the travelling party of an unmarried couple with a 15-year-old boy and a 10-year-old girl in tow. Finding lodgings proved difficult.

And when a local doctor that Chopin consulted diagnosed tuberculosis that was it. No one would put them up for fear of infection.

They ended up leaving the city of Palma and crossing the mountains behind, ending up in Valldemossa, one of Majorca's prettiest villages but hardly tourist central during the mid-19th Century.

They found a place to stay in a former royal residence that had most recently seen service as a monastery. In two adjoining rooms, Chopin and Sand spent the rest of their four-month stay. Sand would write a book documenting their experiences. Un hiver à Majorque (A Winter in Majorca) was at once a stinging critique of the absence of hospitality and a lyrical rhapsody on the stunning beauty of the place.

For his part, Chopin, despite his frail health, was as prolific as ever finishing off some older work and embarking on new material. Among music conceived and completed was the set of twenty-four preludes – 'Opus 28' – one for every single key following the template of Bach's 'Well-tempered Clavier', and a series of Polish dances – the form that's central to so much of what he wrote.

Chopin's health deteriorated in Majorca, and in early February the pair headed back to France.

Sand and Chopin would stay together for 10 years, but the course of their love wasn't always smooth, and they finally fell out when a novel she wrote caused a scandal among Chopin's friends who felt it was her way of getting even for the unhappiness she had suffered nursing him through his declining health.

Chopin died in 1849 aged just 39. George Sand was almost 72 when she passed away in 1876.


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