Yesterday during my lunch hour I took a walk around the campus where I work, Notre Dame de Namur University. I had no more in mind than a little fresh air and stretching my legs. At a certain point I came to Cunningham Memorial Chapel, the university’s sacred space. It occurred to me to go in and gaze at the lovely colors of the dalle de verre (slab glass) windows by Gabriel Loire, the internationally renowned artist.
When I entered the chapel, I heard someone playing the Vienna-made Bösendorfer piano by the altar, with its rich and living sound. I sat in a back pew and just opened my ears. There was only one other person in that chapel, which can seat several hundred, and the other person soon finished his prayers, crossed himself, and left.
I studied the pianist and saw that he was a man in his early twenties, wearing a baseball cap and a casual jacket.
When he stopped playing I went up to the front of the chapel to thank him, and noticed that the music he had been practicing was the Russian composer Rachmaninoff’s piece “Élégie.” I introduced myself to the pianist, who identified himself as Dongyan Yang from Shijiazhuang, China, now studying in Ohio. I asked how he happened to be playing in Belmont, California, and he told me he was visiting his girlfriend, who is a student at Notre Dame de Namur. I asked if he would perform another piece, and he said he’d play Frédéric Chopin’s Prelude in E Minor, Opus 28.
I sat back down, and to my amazement, Dongyan played this long and extremely challenging work by heart. The piece has so many triumphs and defeats, such deep tranquility and such turbulent storms, that I felt as if I was recapitulating my entire life, and perhaps all the history between Chopin’s span in the first half of the nineteenth century and our own. Dongyan’s interpretation was masterful, gripping. Midway through the piece his girlfriend entered the chapel and sat, as spellbound as I was.
As I absorbed the music (“listen” is too one-dimensional a verb to describe that experience), I thought about all the geographic borders being crossed in that moment—a musician who’d grown up in Hebei Province and now lived in Ohio, a composer who was born in Warsaw and wrote music in France, which was the source of the sculpted glass in that chapel, how my father’s family came to the United States from a part of Poland not that far from Chopin’s birthplace, not to mention the Viennese piano, and all of this intersecting in a town in California. I also thought of the novel Horace I’d translated by George Sand, Chopin’s lover, and how she used to sit under the piano while he composed and rehearsed in the 1840s, perhaps the very notes I was then listening to.
All of that reminded me that the arts are an incredibly unifying force. The enjoyment and appreciation of a Chopin Prelude obliterates political borders and centuries of time. At a moment in history when we’re witnessing the recurrence of nationalism, provincialism, chauvinism, and nostalgia for the strongman, I think with gratitude of that young man from Shijiazhuang in his baseball cap in a chapel in California, playing his heart out for the sheer altitude of music.
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