Death – there’s no denying it – lies at the very heart of life. The only thing that enables our consciousness to grasp this and, having endured the realization, to be liberated from it is love. Each in his own way, Chopin and Rachmaninov have meditated upon this unfathomable mystery and transfigured it with music.
There is nothing more final than death; and yet, by a striking paradox, it is only death that enables the spirit to find its way back to the central point where life regains its urgency. That urgency was tested by Chopin and Rachmaninov in the extreme with their Second Sonatas, works that open out to infinity: they are masses for the dead, recited by love itself for all who love.
What is it that makes these pieces so beautiful? For a start, the fact that one has the impression of hearing the two composers sing of their sorrow from a distance. They are singing not only of the deaths of those close to them, or even their own death: they are offering a refuge for the anxiety of everyone who is going to die. They understand that truth in music, reflecting that of all existence, comes not from simulating happiness but from defining its tragedy in a burst of flame. And thus the promise of reconciliation between time and space becomes a struggle of desperate intensity.
The dissonant chord of sorrow and life is sounded by death and can only be resolved by death. Chopin’s “Funeral March” Sonata and Rachmaninov’s Second Sonata let us perceive this revelation: they are masses of tenderness celebrated on the altar of death within the innermost chapel. They disclose the soul of true love, for love is the cause of great sorrow. When it is gone, all the heart can do is repeat to itself: “It once existed” and “It exists no more”.
Of what, then, does their music sing? Ineffable sadness: beloved is a word written by passion and erased by fate – a frenzied hope that those who die will not have lived in vain. They disappear as themselves only to live again in the form of the eternal spirit. In the end, an appeal: passing through the whole realm of feelings, Chopin and Rachmaninov urge us to love life – in others, even to excess; to embark on a search for salvation, if there should be one; to make ourselves into new beings, kept alive by a new love. Death in Greek is “destiny”, the individual portion of it that each receives as his or her share. Thus it is at once a legacy and a projection. It is the signature of our personal fate, but is also what unites us with others, what signifies that we are really only human in our own confrontation with destiny – and in our piety when faced with the death of others. It is useless to flee from death, which is by definition inexorable. What is important is to maintain the sense of defiance that it instigates by living life in the extreme.
What can this music offer us in our distress? The precarious, dissonant harmony of these works, evoking the divorce of sorrow from existence, is the sign of a cry that has found its rhythm. It prepares for death yet protects against it, because, ultimately, these works tell us so much about death that they open our eyes to an eternity within us. They convert anguish into hope, transfigure our vision of sorrow, and offer us the chance of a reconciliation. Thus they don’t perpetuate grief: they undertake its relief. When this comes about, suddenly death seems like the reverse side of a music of purest essence.
Finally, it seems that the music of Chopin and Rachmaninov is filled with new things: It knows where to hide the dead, it comes on their behalf and before long we shall all be together in a meadow filled with flowers, with fruit and with music.
Hélène Grimaud 11/2004
Grimaud plays the Rachmaninov Sonata … the Chopin Sonata