The first time I met Chopin, I almost believed he was a stuck-up idiot. My beloved loves music, and has often talked to me of her favorite composer Chopin. Quite on a whim, I decided to travel to 19th century Paris and meet the man. An old general who is a friend of mine often would say to me and our friends, “You know the secret to vanquishing your opponent?” On seeing our blank and silent faces, he would calmly stroke his sharp pointed beard mischievously and say, “You must know them, of course!” Jealous, I wanted to understand this object of my wife’s love.
I gained entrance to Chopin’s Paris studio late that evening. Another friend of mine had introduced me to a young, quite beautiful Taoist nun living in the Montmartre district who, on hearing of my passionate interest in the subtle Pole, immediately arranged a meeting. George Sand 1 met me at the door, her hair all tussled and her brown eyes sparkling with irritation.
“Well, come in, I suppose you’re here to see cher Frederic?”, she said with more than a hint of sarcasm in the cher. I had heard of the notorious Sand-Chopin altercations, and assumed I had entered at an inappropriate moment. Nevertheless, I barged right on through the door and followed her through the gas-lighted hallway into a room decorated with hanging carpets of deep, red silk. On a small table, surrounded by small pools of dripping wax, surrounded by faintly visible cloudy fumes, lay a short, recently snuffed candle. In the corner, beside a huge Venetian window that washed the interior with the red light of the setting sun, stood a massive mahogany Pleyel piano.
“Ah, monsieur Li…, excusez moi, Li SHENG, it is a pleasure,” came a voice from behind me.”
I assumed the voice, with all its tonal inaccuracies, referred to me, and swiftly turned. Facing me was a slim young man in his thirties, dressed in the most elegant and fashionable clothes to be found in 1830s Paris. His brown hair was delicately swept back over his forehead, and he gently held his left arm poised over his forwardly placed leg as he bent in my direction with his right arm extended. I fervently grasped his hand, which almost spasmodically recoiled, as if he were wary of contact. With an easy grace, Chopin beckoned me to a divan beside the instrument. He stood in the middle of the room as we stared at each other in some interest. His skin was flushed with color, and his eyes, though sunken with a healthy crop of wrinkles, peered steadily at me. One would think that he had never seen a Chinese in his life, even though Paris has its fair share. He looked as though he had had a feverish night of sleep as his hair was not as well kept as might be expected. His hands were extremely attractive. They were quite smooth and tapered and belied a life of relaxation. Furthermore, every so often they would tremble, though ever so slightly, as if they itched to move.
“I’ve heard from Delacroix’ 2 Beloved that you are a fine poet. Quite remarkable for les Chinoise,” he said. “Do you know that I cannot stand his paintings? In any case, he is a painter, not a musician. I must hear you …eventually.”
He added the eventually as if as an afterthought. He then rushed to the piano and seated himself at it. Nervously caressing the keys of the metal monster, he stared off into the distance, as if he were looking for someone, and continued,
“You know, I have thoughts of music that constantly run through my head. Sometimes I am driven to madness because of them. I struggle to produce them on paper. Each piece must be as a finely sculpted gem. So much work. It is killing me. And that damn Liszt 3!”
Here he spat out the name of that great soul as if it were poison.
“Yes” I blurted out, caught in the moment, “It is so hard to be with the things you love, but even harder to be without them. We are a damned people!”But Chopin went on as if he had never heard me,
“That damn Liszt never plays the pieces as I’ve written them. He adds an embellishment here, an extra bass note there. And to my preludes, no less!”
I smiled inwardly at his mention of those marvelous set of 24 pieces written around 1839 and inspired by the preludes and fugues of J.S. Bach’s Well Tempered Clavier. Each piece is so intimate, so brief and yet so worldly. Like a 7 syllable poem, they express more than can ever be sung. With each point he made, his forefinger would stab the empty air for emphasis. His other hand would continue stroking the ivory keys.
George Sand, who had been standing to attention before the huge fireplace with a cigar in her hand, like a sexually ambivalent medieval princess in a Kurosawa movie, began smiling impishly.
“Now, Frederic, control yourself. Liszt is only an acrobat. Ah, but so handsome”, and she winked at me.
Chopin, as if not to hurt her, immediately ceased his remonstrations. He calmly swept his hand over his brow, lifted his hands and said to me,
“Tell me what you think of this, monsieur?”
He then played the E-minor prelude, the one with the constantly shifting harmonic blocks in the left hand, which changes each successive chord by only a single note. His playing was ethereal, so lightly his fingers touched the keys. The light from the window appeared to crown his head with golden wisps of his hair, and so naked was the melody, so tender, only his fabulous touch and musical integrity saved the piece from being sentimental. All this time Sand was eyeing me with a mischievous glint in her eyes. As the last vibrations died away and the Master and I sat wrapped in reveries, a sharp voice broke the spell,
“Aha, and what do you think of that, my young man?”
Sand was triumphant. “Isn’t that finer than any of Liszt’s tantrums and diabolic prancings about the keyboard? Give me twelve bars of Frederic’s for an opera of Meyerbeer any day!”
To this playing I had no answer, so speechless was I. After that meeting I spent the rest of the day in silence. Chopin, the spell broken, suddenly rushed from the seat to the mantelpiece, and seized a purse lying there.
“Well, we must go, it is time to meet our friends. George, please remember to requisition some more of Paris’s young ladies for students. They are such fun to be with,” and he laughed weakly. “Monsieur,” he turned to me. “Please forgive us our ungraciousness. We are off to see Cosi 4. Don’t forget to come by again, perhaps later in the week.”
And with a crackling laugh, my worthy opponent vanished into the ether. I thought back to my beloved. I see her in my mind’s eye, the phoenix patterns on her chunpu, the elegant fan, the blushing face…
凤尾香罗薄几重？ fèng wěi xiāng luó bó jǐ chóng
碧文圆顶夜深缝。 bì wén yuán dǐng yè shēn féng
扇裁月魄羞难掩, shān cái yuè pò xiū nán yǎn
车去雷声语未通。 chē qù léi shēng yǔ wèi tōng
曾是寂寥金烬暗， céng shì jì liáo jīn jìn àn
断无消息石榴红。 duàn wú xiāo xī shí liú hóng
斑骓只系垂杨岸， bān zhuī zhǐ jì chuí yáng àn
何处西南待好风？ hé chù xī nán dài hǎo fēng
How many layers of silk are printed with the phoenix tail?
The blue weaved dome blends into night.
Your moonlike fan fails to hide your blushing face.
The carriage, thundering, gives speech no place.
There was a time you sat alone by the flickering candle,
Sad, without word of weddings or pomegranate wine.
Like a dappled mare tethered to the poplar on the river bank,
How can a man wait as all these beautiful south west beauties pass him by?
About the Calligraphy
凤尾香罗薄几重？碧文圆顶夜深缝。How many layers of silk are printed with the phoenix tail? The blue weaved dome blends into night. (2 rows, 14 characters, Cursive Cao Script): M.O. Ndesandjo