Growing up with Chopin

Memories rekindled


I’ve often talked about the memories of smell and taste…about how evocative and powerful they are.

I was reminded this week about the importance sound plays in our lives. I was at a New Zealand Symphony Orchestra concert. The programme for the evening was entitled ‘Polish Pride’ and  featured music from Chopin, Szymanowski and Lutoslawski.

The evening began with a tribute to Chopin, who’s birth was being celebrated, and to the recent tragic accident which killed the beloved Polish premier among others. Poland’s ambassador to New Zealand spoke – the first of the evening’s sound memories, her accent being reminiscent of my father’s.

In case you haven’t already guessed, I have a good dose of Polish blood, my father having been born and raised there. We missed out on a lot of consonants…I don’t know quite how that happened! Chopin had only one more than us.

I was reared with the hauntingly beautiful melodies of Frederick Chopin playing in the background. My favourite record (a 75) was a Children’s Classic recording of the ‘Life of Frederick Chopin’; his story took the form of a play – fabulous voices of course – with all his music in the background. The cover had aline drawing of Chopin in profile with a deep pink backdrop and black cursive text. How I loved that story and how I loved Chopin – he was so real. His life was cut short by a terrible consumptive illness – I think tuberculosis. As a child I felt his pain – I cried every time he died.

And whenever I was unwell, I had Chopin’s cough! The family joke …

My father has great dreams for me – he wanted be to be a concert pianist just like Chopin. Only problem was – you guessed it – I was not concert pianist material. I’m sure he gave instruction to both my piano teachers – old Ma Higgins who used to slap her ruler over my fingers at every wrong note while digging wax out of her ears with a biro, and another similarly horrofic woman who shall remain nameless – to teach me everything, as long as it was Chopin. I could do Chopin…except when there were far to many accidentals for my brain to cope with.

I loved the minor keys – I still do.

On Thursday night when the second movement of Chopin’s Piano Concert No 2 began an unexpected lump rose in my throat. My eyes welled with tears as the familiar melodies from my childhood filled the concert hall. The feeling continued as I listened to the sublime playing of Diedre Irons…I relaxed back to let the music and the feelings flow over and through me. It was wonderful. The same emotions continued through the third movement.

I wished that the NZSO had dedicated its whole programme to the works of Chopin.

Why didn’t I try harder when I was young?

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