“When I wrote the Berceuse”, Chopin told me, “ I was dreaming of many things. I had just read a book from the East called the Gita. It is a religious tract that talks about life being an illusion, and how shadows are real, and how we are the reflections of what lies in the water.”
I nodded my head, eager to hear more. Chopin wrote the Berceuse in 1844, towards the end of his life. Since then, this brief piano piece has been celebrated as one of his most remarkable and beautiful compositions.
‘The Berceuse is one of the few pieces I gave a programmatic title to. Most of my pieces have formal titles, like sonata, prelude, etude and so on. This piece, however, is a lullaby. It sings of fairytales and dreamy illusions…”
I at once thought of the religion from India that had newly arrived in China. Buddhism was similar to the Hindu religion, in that both describe how this world is an ever shifting place of images and sensations that envelop, but do not change, immortal souls and spirits.
“I have heard your berceuse many times,” I said, ‘ It reminds me of a magic place the Daoists call Kunlun, an island of celestial beings. It is a place of immortality elixirs, jade palaces and three legged toads.”
“No, my composition is about what I feel now. The left hand is a constant, pulsing heartbeat, that rarely changes. The right is a series of variations that present the main melody in innumerable permutations. C’est la vie. This is what life is all about.”
I glanced at his shoes. They were a glittering black, attracting much more attention than his double-breasted frock-coat, buttoned high and cut in the latest style. His clothes were so reserved and bon ton, yet his face was glowing. His hair, always long, covered half his face as he trembled with excitement. He clutched one hand with the other as if to protect it. Then he leaned forward and whispered in my ear.
“This piece is my pill of immortality!”
浪笑榴花不及春，làng xiào liú huā bù jí chūn，
先期零落更愁人。xiān qī líng luò gèng;gēng chóu rén。
玉盘迸泪伤心数，yù pán bèng lèi shāng xīn shǔ;shù;shuò，
锦瑟惊弦破梦频。jǐn sè jīng xián pò mèng pín。
万里重阴非旧圃，wàn lǐ zhòng;chóng yīn fēi jiù pǔ，
一年生意属流尘。yī nián shēng yì shǔ liú chén。
前溪舞罢君回顾，qián qī wǔ bà;ba jūn huí gù，
并觉今朝粉态新。bìng jué;jiào jīn zhāo fěn tài xīn。
When late in the spring, as if with a mocking laugh, the pomegranate flowers,
How sad it is that the peony starts to shrivel and wither, and loses its powers.
How many times my troubled heart mourns, like the tear drops the jade leaves bring,
My dreams again and again interrupted with the jarring sound of an ornamented zither’s string.
Ten thousand miles of stormy clouds, far from the winding river plains of olden days,
A year of my life spent floating, like a mote of dust swept away.
I look back to see petals dance, shake and drop in their multitudes,
So beautiful, one feels as though they bloom anew.
Musical Interlude: Berceuse Op. 57 played by Mark Obama Ndesandjo