Well, it seemed like a good idea at the time. George Sand, who was actually not a George at all but the pen name of Aurore Dupin, popular lady French novelist and writer of romantic potboilers, had decided it would be a good thing to take her fifteen year old son Maurice, who suffered from rheumatism, to a warm climate away from the Parisian winter. “ George”, was truly a woman ahead of her day-dressing in men’s trousers (easier to get around town) and smoking little cigars. She was the most famous woman in France at the time- for her writings, very popular particularly with women , but also for her numerous love affairs with noted artists, writers, and musicians.
She also thought it might be a good idea to invite her new romantic interest–one Frederic Chopin, a young Polish composer and recent arrival in Paris, who had taken the town by storm. Chopin, who had become the darling of the Parisian musical and social set, possessed quite delicate health and Sand hoped that some “fun in the sun” might be just the ticket to improve his well-being. [During his lifetime it was never discovered exactly what ailed the composer. For years, it has been assumed he had tuberculosis although he was never diagnosed with what was then called “consumption.” Today there are alternative diagnoses-the most likely being cystic fibrosis].
So, in other words, her plan was to take an ultra-sensitive, semi-hysterical genius with roller coaster health and a taste for the highest refinements of clothing, food, luxurious surroundings, and place him in a rustic, isolated island populated by provincials and lacking basic daily amenities. What could possibly go wrong?
On November of 1838, the intrepid little group-Chopin, Sand, her two children, Maurice and Solange, and the maid, Amelia-arrived in Palma. capital of Majorca (an island in the Mediterranean located off the coast of Spain) and embarked on what would turn out to be an epic fail. Both Sand and Chopin wrote about the experience-Sand in a book entitled Winter in Majorca and Chopin in numerous letters to his friends and business associates.
Problems appeared right away when they discovered there were no hotels in Palma and they had to scramble to find lodging for the night. Sand wrote:
“In Palma, one must be recommended and announced to the twenty outstanding persons…..and hope not to sleep in an open field. All that was possible for us to do was to secure two furnished …..little rooms in a rather bad location…..the slightest grimace you made upon finding vermin in your bed and scorpions in your soup would command the deepest contempt and raise universal indignation against you.”
After one week in the dingy little rooms, George was able to secure lodging in a villa just outside of Palma. This was a white-washed Mediterranean style bungalow with a red tiled roof.
At first Chopin was not too put out writing to his friend Julian Fontana: on the day of moving to the villa:
“I am in Palma, among palm trees, cedars, cacti, olives, oranges, lemons, aloes, figs pomegranates, etc…..the sky is like turquoise, the sea like lapis lazuli, the mountains like emeralds, the air as in heaven……..at night it is guitars and singing at all hours.”
The weather was perfect, they went for long walks, the children studied and Sand worked on her novel. The only sour note was that the piano which Camille Pleyel (French piano manufacturer and friend of Chopin) was sending had not arrived so Sand had to borrow a third rate instrument from a local family. Chopin was very distressed over this. Still, he was able to compose one of his most beautiful Mazurkas on it-op.41, no. 2 in E minor.
Unfortunately, in December it began to rain. Big time. Sand described it as a “deluge. The villa’s walls were so thin that the lime with which our rooms were plastered swelled like a sponge……for us, who are accustomed to warm ourselves in the winter, this house without a fireplace was like a mantle of ice on our shoulders……..Chopin, delicate as he was and subject to violent irritations of the larynx, soon felt the effects of the damp.” Chopin wrote to his friend Fontana that he could not send him a manuscript because he had been “sick like a dog the last two weeks.”He described himself as “coughing and hacking.”
Eventually word got around Palma that Chopin was “consumptive.” Sand wrote that “from this moment we became an object of dread and horror……We were accused….of pulmonary phthisis, which is equivalent to the plague.” When the landlord of the villa, a Mr. Gomez, heard of this, they were promptly evicted-and to add insult to injury, he demanded they also pay for disinfecting the villa, repainting, and burning the bed and bedclothes. Although Sand wrote at that point to a friend that their stay had so far been “a frightful fiasco”, she was a stubborn gal determined to stick it out for the rest of the winter, so she secured rooms in a recently abandoned monastery at , a few miles from Palma.
Even though Chopin dramatically described his room or “cell” at the monastery as having “the shape of a tall tomb”, and wrote that he was “uncoiffed, without white gloves, pale as ever”….with “an old square table, barely adequate for me to write on….a candle….Bach…..my scribblings…. silence”, the lodgings were actually a suite of three rooms facing on beautiful gardens.
Sand and her children began to adjust to the situation and settled into a routine of lessons, play, and work. But Chopin became increasingly miserable, dragging down the mood of the others.
Sand wrote that “the poor great artist was a detestable patient” full of anxieties, terrors, suffering. She would find him “at ten o’clock at night, pale at his piano, with haunted eyes, and hair standing on end.”
One evening when Sand and Maurice returned from shopping, they found Chopin weeping and playing his new Preludes. She wrote:
“he stood up with a great cry” because he had imagined them all dead. Later Sand writes that he told her “he had seen all that in a dream……he became calm as he played the piano, persuaded that he was dead too. He saw himself drowned in a lake, heavy frozen water drops were falling on his chest.” She recalled that “his composition that evening was full of raindrops that resounded on the roof tiles, but were translated in his imagination….into tears falling on his heart from the sky.”
Not only was Chopin beginning to lose it, both physically and mentally, but Sand was becoming increasingly frazzled and resentful as she was transformed into his nurse and cook. He had to have special foods and attention so that Sand found it hard to find time to work on her own writings.
She relates that they began to feel like “prisoners, far from all enlightened help and from all efficacious sympathy.”
Finally, they had enough. On February 11, 1839 they sailed for Barcelona. Sand wrote to a friend “we were pariahs in Majorca because of Chopin’s cough and also because we did not go to Mass. They threw stones at my children. They were saying that we are pagans.” But their ordeal was not over—the boat to the mainland was also transporting a herd of pigs, with its accompanying foul odor. They were confined to a hot, crowded cabin below deck overnight because of Chopin’s “contagion”.
Chopin, according to Sand, arrived in Barcelona “crawling along like a ghost.” Amazingly, Chopin, however, began to improve immediately after arriving in the city.
So there it is–the famous “sojourn in Majorca” by Chopin and George Sand – a disaster wrapped in a fiasco. But still, ironically, Chopin completed some of his greatest and most beloved masterworks there—the twenty four Preludes op.28, the Polonaises of Opus 40, the Ballade no. 2 in F major, op. 38, and the Scherzo no. 3 in C-sharp minor op. 39.
Katherine Teves Mizruchi