Earlier in this series, I talked about how my parents inspired me and encouraged my love of music. They are both long gone now, Dad for over 50 years and Mom for a decade, but every time I play anything, I think of them. In the last installment discussing whether I was still a musician or not, I came to the conclusion that even without performing for others, I am and always will be a musician. The pandemic has pushed me to enjoy my music more privately, and in doing so, return to my roots and my first instrument, the piano. Playing the piano reminds me of my mother, especially when I play some of the repertoire that she played frequently. One of her favorites was Chopin’s Raindrop Prelude. Mom used to play this one with deep expression and early on told me the story her piano teacher told her about the piece. Her favorite teacher used to tell her stories about every piece she was assigned, and in doing so made the music come alive as much more than mere notes on the page.
The story my mother related to me about the Raindrop Prelude stuck with me from early childhood, and I can’t help but think of it whenever I play it or hear it on the radio despite this version not appearing in various written histories of the piece. My mom’s teacher explained to her that Chopin was on the island of Majorca when he wrote this piece. She claimed he was delirious with fever and incorporated several impressions and hallucinations into his music as he listened to the ever present raindrops hitting the roof of the monastery where he was staying. The prelude begins in Db Major, and the rain forest is tranquil, even delicate as gentle raindrops fall. As the piece develops, it transitions into C# minor signifying an angry ghost army amassing. The section crescendos to a fierce climax, and then recedes and builds again. The raindrops pound, and a great battle is fought with the ghost army. Eventually, the ghosts are defeated, and they drift away as the music transitions back into Db Major, peacefully returning to the gentle tranquility of the rain forest, the delicate raindrops calming and reassuring.
In reading various histories of Chopin, this isn’t the version that appears in print, but it certainly adds depth to an already dramatic piece of music. I grew up with this prelude, but I was never able to master the transition at the end of the imaginary battle. My mother played this piece countless times over the years, and even though I don’t play it as well as she did, it always triggers vivid memories of my mom, particularly those from when we enjoyed music together. In these odd times, in some ways I feel closer to my parents as I pursue my music privately rather than rushing from run to run as I did before the pandemic.
Growing up, my father was a stickler for practicing the right way, dissecting and drilling any passage that was troublesome. Once I started taking music lessons, he wouldn’t let me quit. When he died, my mother had been close to letting me stop my piano lessons because I was developing my musical skills through my clarinet and school ensemble play. She thought that my four years of piano study by that time had cemented a solid foundation in music, and she had started talking with Dad about letting me drop the piano. Instead, because of his insistence that I continue my piano lessons before he died, she required me to continue. After another year, she finally relented and let me stop studying piano.
If only I had been smarter at the time. I studied piano for five years and had a solid foundation, but I could have learned so much more. I had a great teacher, but as a child I didn’t recognize the opportunity that I was passing up when Mom finally let me quit. As I mentioned in my earlier installments of this series, I didn’t stop playing completely and actually continued to develop my piano skills to some degree through high school, but not as much as my other instruments. I also developed some bad habits along the way, the worst of which was my atrocious fingering. Whenever there was a demonstrably wrong way to finger a passage, that’s how I tended to do it.
Now, over half a century later, I am again motivated to work on my piano skills. I’ve come back to the Raindrop Prelude, and while I don’t know if I’ll truly master it with the level of expressiveness that my mother incorporated, I am going back to basics, practicing the way my father used to insist. I’m also practicing a number of other pieces for my own amusement. I don’t mind music being my private domain and an important link to my parents. They gave me a great gift, and every time I play, I can’t help but smile and think of them.
My magical musical journey: Part 7 – Am I still a musician?
My magical musical journey: Part 6 – outside challenges
My magical musical journey: Part 5 – practice, performance, and repeat
My magical musical journey: Part 4 – my return to organized music
My magical musical journey: Part 3 – the college years
My first pit experience
My magical musical journey: Part 2 – high school acceleration
My magical musical journey: Part 1 – the beginning
Classical Music, Why Bother?: Hearing the World of Contemporary Culture Through a Composer’s Ears by Joshua Fineberg
The Great Courses: How Music and Mathematics Relate
How to Listen to and Understand Great Music by The Great Courses
Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain by Oliver Sacks
Remembering Mom and Dad by Ande Jacobson
The Student Conductor by Robert Ford
This is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession by Daniel J. Levitin
What to Listen for in Music by Aaron Copland
What to Listen for in Mozart by Robert Harris
What to Listen for in Beethoven by Robert Harris
Who Needs Classical Music?: Cultural Choice and Musical Voice by Julian Johnson
The role of the pit musician in musical theatre
The performing arts during a pandemic
‘Why We Sleep’ shows that sleep makes us smarter and healthier