Deep breath, eyes closed. Headphones in, eyes opened, and a few steps toward the painting. You see a young European aristocrat with a pinched face, and a subtle overbite that gives the look of a sly sneer. Large, gaudy, pinkish hat blending in with drapes behind and holding an emotionless gray tabby cat wrapped in a white sheet. First thoughts. First impressions. The child is a brat. Young, wealthy, controlling of what is within reach. Music on. Features begin to soften; the child looks ill at ease in her surroundings. Clothes not quite fitting. Disheveled appearance showing through.
Recently, I wrote about being in and out of love at museums. In September of this year, I went to a museum with my dad – a museum I had been to only once before, last March, and it was with someone I was falling(fell) in love with. Rather selfishly, instead of walking the museum with my father, showing him what I had already seen, I listened to music and wandered near but apart from him; simultaneously searching for new work, seeing some of the same objects, and attempting to preserve my memories from before. While shuffling through the Boston Museum of Fine Arts on a sweltering fall day – freezing while inside the art halls – I listened to Frédéric Chopin on repeat. In particular, Nocturne No.2 in E flat, Op.9 No.2 over, and over, and over.
Frédéric Francois Chopin was born March 1, 1810 in Poland, and died October 17, 1849 in Paris, at a fairly young age. In the short span of his life, he accomplished much. In a review of his life on NPR Music you learn:
He found himself in such demand as a teacher that he was able to make a comfortable living, and he hobnobbed with the great artists of the day [...]. Chopin's works from his first years in Paris include the Nocturnes of Opp. 9 and 15 (1830-32), the 12 Etudes, Op. 25 (1835-37), [...], the Scherzo in B-flat minor, Op. 31 (1837), the Sonata in B-flat minor, Op. 35 (1837), and the G minor Ballade, Op. 23.
It’s interesting to note that he was a success in life. There is this persona of struggling artists from his time period finding success after death. That the music left behind, silently received in life, became a type of immortality only after they were gone. Chopin was unique in other ways. He was also “the first composer of genius to devote himself uniquely to the piano.” Perhaps it was his specialty, his focus, that contributed to his accolades in life, and in setting himself apart from his teachers and fellow musicians. Ted Libbey, of NPR Music, also said that the work of Chopin has, “The luminous textures and haunting melodies he used to express his thoughts added to the piano's sound and range of color shadings that no one before him had imagined were there, but that all who have followed recognize as his.”
For me, his work melded the art of music with the art found on a canvas. It was this “luminous texture” of the Nocturne No.2 in E flat, Op.9 No.2 (he was only twenty when he composed it) that I found so appealing. Every time the song repeated, it felt new and comforting, giving each work of art I viewed new layers, and lending moments of deeper reflection. Cutting out the background noise of the other patrons, including my father, and offered a discrete focus.
I rely on music. To bring me down or raise me up, to rebuild my emotional state. Genre changing to fit the mood. Listening to Chopin while searching the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, I was able to create a barrier to my memories – a time capsule made of musical notes and piano key flourishes – while at the same time amplifying new ones. I could still feel his hand in mine while gazing over ancient egyptian artifacts, this time with Chopin turning over in my ear, alone. I remembered taking funny-faced photos in front of Mary Magdalene portraits, while my father took mine in front of a life-sized canvas of an American battle – then moving on to the next exhibit with my headphones back in, retreating back into myself.
Chopin’s Nocturne No.2 in E flat, Op.9 No.2 is my musical embodiment for the tipping point of melancholy, a precipice, where I might either slump further within myself, or fall face first into wonder. Waiting subtly to either build upon the moment, or let it pass. It is something I find myself humming at times, almost assigning lyrics, thoughts, to the sound of the piano keys. Here’s love. Here’s grief. Here’s hope. Here’s madness. Here’s to the next breath and note.
Visit Musopen.org for a treasure trove of royalty free recordings, sheet music, education, and more, with a wide range of classical musicians and composers. Most importantly, Chopin’s work.