An Island Education
by Fabienne Marsh
August 25, 2022
In 2021, I went to Jamaica because I did not want to be alone for Christmas. After years of following every conceivable lead, I tracked down Shereda who had cared for my parents in Connecticut, until they died within six months of each other. I had seen her many times after our loss, often with my children and my brother’s family, talked over the phone, shared pictures with her, and laughed a lot.
I consider her family.
“I was about to file a missing person report,” I said, on our first voice call in three years. Her ringing laugh was singular.
She had moved back to Jamaica to oversee her mother’s affairs upon learning that her mother had squandered the hard-earned money she dutifully sent back from the states.
“I’ll come and help you with her,” I offered. “What are you doing for Christmas?” “She’s being difficult,” Shereda said, “Speaking in tongues and all her nonsense.”
She insisted she did not need help and that her mother wished to visit a friend for Christmas.
Shereda met me at the airport, a two-hour rugged trip in a van over the mountains from where she lived. I’d booked Toby’s Resort in Montego Bay, a modest hotel run by locals. Clean rooms, pool, zero private beaches (Sandals and other resorts have privatized beach access for Jamaicans). We fed hummingbirds in their sanctuaries, splurged on our first zip-line runs over rivers and lush forests, led by highly trained, caring and hilarious CHUKKA guides. On a somber note, we walked to Burchell Baptist Church, where Deacon Sam Sharpe preached a peaceful, sit-down strike to end slavery. When the Christmas Rebellion (1831-1832) turned violent in the western parishes, the country’s national hero took responsibility and was hanged, along with 300 executed slaves.
Which brings me to the reason I offered to write about the Islands – those I visited during my early career in documentary film (Haiti/The Dominican Republic and Grenada), those islands I’ve chosen to visit (Jamaica, Cuba, Mallorca, Crete, Malta), and those I hope someday to visit (Sicily and Sardinia).
I’ve learned far more about American/Western European History/World History and Culture from every island I’ve ever visited than I ever learned in school.
I can’t possibly cover them all, so I’ll start with Mallorca.
Mallorca and Chopin’s Piano
When I took piano lessons as a young girl, my French mother once mentioned that George Sand had lugged Frédéric Chopin’s piano on a donkey up a mountain in Mallorca. I loved Chopin, particularly his Nocturnes and Preludes and my mother’s story sounded wildly romantic, befitting the popular female writer Robert Graves dubbed “the uncrowned Queen of Romantics” whose lovers included Prosper Mérimée, Alfred de Musset, politician Louis Blanc, and Marie Dorval. Among her friends and admirers were the literary titans of that era – Flaubert, Hugo, Balzac – and the painter, Eugene Delacroix.
When a friend from college invited me to meet his grandmother in Mallorca, I promptly read Robert Graves’ translation of Sand’s Winter in Majorca and was determined to make the pilgrimage to Cell #4 of the Carthusian monastery of Valldemossa where Sand lived for 56 days with her two children and “our invalid” Frédéric Chopin, whose advanced case of tuberculosis was worsened by weeks of unremitting rain.
We arrived in Palma, Mallorca in November, just as Chopin had. My friend’s grandmother announced suddenly that we would have to find lodging elsewhere, so we left for Valldemossa. On November 15 , 1838, before the weather turned, Chopin wrote to his friend Jules Fontana in Paris: “Here I am in the midst of palms and cedars and cactuses and olives and lemons and aloe and figs and pomegranates. The sky is turquoise blue and the sea is azure, the mountains are emerald green the air is as pure as that of Paradise.”
On December 3 , before heading to the monastery, Chopin wrote again to his friend, “Nothing could be more charming: cells, a most poetic cemetery. In fact, I am convinced that I shall feel well there. The one thing I still lack is my piano.” [emphasis mine].”
The Pleyel piano was in fact a pianino, a small upright built for Chopin by Camille Pleyel, a friend of Chopin and a musician in his own right. Pleyel shipped the instrument from Paris to Palma, via Marseille. It arrived in mid-December, only to be detained at the port for a dispute over high customs charges.
Chopin could not compose without it.
In Cell #4, I stood before the simple, beautiful wood pianino with reverence and awe. I walked the silent halls of the monastery at night and returned many times in the footsteps of George Sand and her children—in the mountains and village and to the fewer steps of Chopin in the garden outside their cell overlooking the lush Tramuntana mountain range. The year was 1994, my friend and I had the entire monastery to ourselves.
The piano finally arrived on January 9, 1839, transported by donkey almost two months after Sand, her children and Chopin arrived in Mallorca. I could not fathom how Chopin, consumptive and wan (“I get no sleep. I can only cough”) managed to turn his time in this remote mountain monastery into one of the most productive periods of his life.
January 22, 1839, a mere 13 days after the pianino arrived, he wrote to Camille Pleyel:
My dear friend,
I enclose my preludes, which I completed on your pianino. It arrived in the best possible condition, despite the sea, bad weather and customs at Palma.
Of the preludes, Sand writes that in a haggard state, pale as death, with “terrible nerve-wracking ideas that had forced themselves on him in his hour of loneliness, grief and terror…he composed the finest of his short pieces which he modestly called Preludes. ” They were dedicated to Camille Pleyel.
In George Sand’s, Story of My Life, she writes, “I made him listen to the noise of the water dropping at regular intervals on the cell roof…That evening’s prelude was full of raindrops beating on the Charterhouse roof, but they were transformed by his imagination and singing gift into tears falling on the heart.”
Frédéric Chopin’s Prelude In D♭ Major Op. 28 No. 15 is also known as The Raindrop Prelude.
There are many interpretations, by many great pianists. Listen and hear if you find this one as extraordinary as I do. I feel that Chopin, himself, is playing.
If you wish to learn more about this time of Chopin’s life in Mallorca, you might enjoy this 35 minute lecture (including Chopin’s compositions) from Professor Alan Walker. He is an English-Canadian musicologist and music professor.
Fabienne Marsh is the author of four novels and numerous works of non-fiction. Her film credits have appeared on dozens of documentary films and she has taught writing at both Johns Hopkins University and the University of Minnesota. She has served as a writer-consultant for Nickelodeon, HBO, Turner Broadcasting and Public Broadcasting (WNET and WETA). Her lighter works of non-fiction include Dave’sWorld, with co-author Michael Cader about David Letterman, and the coffee-table book, Saturday Night Live: The First Twenty Years, for which Marsh interviewed Candice Bergen, Steve Martin, Chris Rock, and other cast members. You can learn more about her at her website.