So here we are at the Real Cartuja in the hillside town of Valdemossa. The video below gives some idea of the atmosphere. What brought Chopin, Sand, her two children and a French maid to this extraordinary place?
In part, it was the nineteenth century equivalent of Murphy’s Law: ‘Everything that can go wrong, does.’ On arrival in Palma in November 1838, it was difficult to find lodgings, but eventually this little group of travellers found some rooms in a noisy city street, before the ever-resourceful Sand managed to rent a furnished villa (below) in Establiments, four kilometres from Palma.
Camille Pleyel, composer, piano manufacturer and eventual publisher of the French edition of the Preludes, had shipped a Pleyel piano to Chopin; it was delayed, but before it arrived a little piano was found to rent. So far, so good. Chopin wrote – ‘I’m surrounded by palm trees, cedar, cactus; lemon, orange, fig and pomegranate trees everywhere … The sky is turquoise, the sea lapis-lazuli, the mountains emerald and the air like heaven …’
Then came the rains. And with the rains, Chopin’s cough increased to the point where consumption was feared; the landlord refused to have the family rent his house, expelled them, burnt the furniture and charged them to replace it, as Spanish law decreed.
The French Consul came to the rescue by having them stay with him temporarily. A longer-term solution was then found – they could rent monastic cells, recently vacated by a revolutionary and his wife in an abandoned Carthusian Monastery. Still without the Pleyel piano, at least there will be an organ in the monastery’s church, thought Chopin and Sand – but no; the Carthusians are a silent order of monks. You couldn’t make this story up.
Nevertheless, this motley group moved in and made the best of it. Walk though the Cartuja on a winter’s day; it is cold, and dark. Voices echo around the cloisters, as do footsteps. The Apothecary’s cell is still there, stocked with ancient bottles; it was present in Chopin’s time, too. A local woman who ‘helped’ George Sand with the domestic duties lived in; there were ruins, and a graveyard. It was reputed to be haunted. The locals were hostile. The road to Palma was a track liable to flooding and subsidence. The Pleyel piano ended up in the customs house in Majorca; Sand pestered, haggled and persisted until it was released – for a price – and had it brought to the Cartuja. Sand’s son, Maurice, sketched Chopin performing for the locals.
And yet … Chopin wrote out the manuscript of his Preludes, and worked on the third Scherzo and the second Ballade, among other pieces. George Sand finished her novel Spiridion there; writing through the night while the others slept. In spite of Sand’s best nursing efforts, Chopin’s health deteriorated; they had to leave. Sand managed to book the family on a steamer bound for Barcelona – loaded with pigs. Hardly a salubrious choice of travelling companions, but it was the only transportation available.
In a stone-cold monastic cell stands the Pleyel piano on which Chopin composed. Next, we’ll look at three of the pieces he would have played on it.