Thursday, October 4, 2007


Chopin's Prelude No. 15 is one of my all time favorite pieces of music.  Currently it's being used as background to a TV ad for Halo 3, and every time I hear it, it stirs my soul.  For the complete piece, visit here.  I also wrote a short story in which the music plays a strong part:



The Wehrmacht entered Krakow on September 6, 1939, when I was 17 years old.  My father, who had trained me from childhood on the instrument of my life, beat time contrapuntally to the tread of Panzers as they jingled through Rynek Glowny toward Wawel Castle, snapping the bricks with their weight.  We had known for five days they were coming.   The army of Poland had met the blitzkrieg mounted upon chargers, armed with sabres, discarding their lives like stalks of wheat falling before the mow.


That morning I had worked for three hours steadfastly on the first movement of Pathetique, which I still found difficult.  The score fell, rustling, as father rose and moved to the window to look down at the street. 


“Keep working,” he said when I paused.  My attention returned to the opalescent console of the Blüthner, product of Leipzig, the home of Bach and Goethe, Wagner’s birthplace.  Father opened the window to the early autumn air, and the tractor-like rumbling grew louder.  A whiff of smoke came in at the casement.  I continued with the opening of the sonata, but my heart would not inform my hands.  Yet, fatherdid not seem to notice my mistakes—or if he did—he did not comment. 


He returned rubbing his glasses with his kerchief.  “Halina,” he said, and laid his warm hand over mine.  “Let us put aside the Viennese composer.”


From the shelf he took our beloved slender volume of Chopin’s preludes.  “On this day let us hear the music of our countryman.  Turn to page 19.   Prelude 15 in D-flat major.”


He spoke as I played.  “Yes, daughter—you have his music in your soul.  It begins like a gentle spring rain—a soft downpour on flat green leaves, sustaining, revivifying.  Hear now, in the middle section, how the storm increases, now growing in malevolence, yet not merely a storm—but also a test—what may we men and women abide?  Yes, even in the midst of the tempest there is triumph, hear it!  Feel it!  And now the grief and loss—as, the storm subsides and the gentle rain falls again to nourish the ground.”


When I finished, he wiped the tears from my eyes with his kerchief.  “Halina—the pain will pass away and the darkness will lift, and the world will be well again.  Politics and war flame brightly but, in the end, they always burn themselves out.  Only art endures.”

Ten years later, while studying in Paris before the Fourth International Chopin Competition, I visited the maestro’s grave in Père-Lachaise.  His mausoleum, bestrewn with garlands and wreaths, bouquets of gladiolus and mums and votive candles that guttered in the light rain, invoked despondency as though he had been laid to rest only the previous day, rather than a century before.  On that drizzly April day in 1949, I remembered my father’s words.   For the hell had indeed passed—but not soon.  Laying a spray of lilies upon Chopin’s tomb, I mourned for my poor country.  I did not grieve for myself.  For I had suffered nothing—except insomniac nights in Krakow; sleepless, clutching my pillow, my stomach a pit of fear and dread and anguish, hearing, far away, shrieking train whistles fade away west.

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