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Sand (left) and Chopin, painted by Delacroix in 1838. Originally one canvas, the portraits were cut apart after the artist’s death

Paul Kildea’s book Chopin’s Piano: A Journey Through Romanticism (Allen Lane, £20) tells the story of a small piano made in Palma, Majorca by Juan Bauza during the 1830s. It was hired there by Chopin, though it gave him “more vexation than consolation”, and much later owned by the celebrated harpsichordist Wanda Landowska. The book is about them too. The pieces composed on the pianino included several of Chopin’s Preludes and these, with their companions which together make up the set of 24 Preludes Op 28, are a third theme. The fourth is no less than Romanticism itself, specifically Romantic piano music, of which Chopin was the fount.

The most notoriously unsuccessful holiday in the history of classical music was that taken by Chopin and his androgynous literary lover George Sand (and her family) in Majorca in 1838-1839. The trousered, cigar-smoking Sand was derided by Baudelaire as possessing the morals of a janitress; her future lover Alfred de Musset mordantly observed of the silver dagger which pinned her hair that “a woman of such slight virtue hardly required so immoderate a weapon”. Chopin’s characteristically acidulous comment on his first encounter was, “What an unattractive person la Sand is. Is she really a woman?” That was in 1836; by 1838 the two were lovers. They numbered Delacroix (who painted them both) and Heine among their Paris friends.

In Majorca, where they arrived in November 1838, they soon retreated to a former charterhouse in the valley of Moses or Valdemossa, high in the mountains outside Palma. Here they occupied cell 4. (In the late 20th century, the owner of this cell successfully sued the owner of cell 2, who was passing it off as the composer’s former residence.) Relations with the islanders did not prosper: in her 1841 memoir Un hiver à Majorque, Sand referred to them as “cowards, hypocrites, pickpockets, Indian monkeys, Polynesian savages”. The local newspaper retaliated, describing her as “the most immoral of writers . . . the most obscene of women”. Chopin’s fragile health deteriorated through the winter. A neighbour observed: “That consumptive will go to hell, first for being a consumptive, and next for not going to confession.” Sand claimed that her children were stoned in the streets. They abandoned Majorca in February 1839, leaving the Bauza behind them. As is the way with unsuccessful holidays, this one improved in recollection; Chopin later told Liszt that the short visit was one of the happiest times of his life: “It was as if, like Linnaeus’s clock, the time of day was told by the blossoming of flowers, each with a different perfume and each disclosing other beauties as they opened outwards.”

The musicologist Jean-Jacques Eigel-dinger has suggested that ten of the Preludes were written in Majorca. (The famous “Raindrop” Prelude emerged from a solitary day when George Sand and her son had gone to Palma to obtain the release of a newly-arrived Pleyel instrument.) Kildea’s curious choice in the book is throughout to focus on the Preludes — where Chopin sought out “the porous stretches of the border between improvisation and composition” — to the almost total exclusion of the rest of Chopin’s works, in particular dozens of pieces far superior even to the Preludes. (The book has 24 chapters, in order to drive the point home.) This almost obsessive preoccupation is a pity; it marginalises to no purpose the remainder of Chopin’s output (allowing for the fact that Kildea wants to keep our attention on the Bauza piano, there were other, greater masterpieces composed on it during the months spent in Majorca); and it creates a distorting narrowness which contrasts strongly with the ambitious breadth of the rest of the book.
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