When I began my last meditation, a lone Parisian violin was playing in my mind. It was a poignant memory, if you remember, of a recent visit to Paris. As I light the candle beside me and begin this new meditation, another musical instrument is playing an equally poignant melody in my consciousness. It is a solo piano and the music is a nocturne by Chopin. A nocturne is a short night piece and meditative, so highly conducive to writing this reflection. I have the complete Chopin Nocturnes in my cd collection but I am not playing them at this present moment. The nocturne in my head is another memory from my recent visit to Paris.
The gentle tune takes me back to a morning visit to the Pere Lachaise cemetery in the heart of the city. I was standing in front of Chopin’s grave. Though he was Polish, he died in Paris in 1849, at the young age of 39 of tuberculosis, which he had suffered from for most of his adult life. As well as being a composer, he was also a great performer on the piano and of the stature of a rock star across Europe in his time.
A monument stood above his grave: a seated lady with a broken lyre in her lap looking down in grief. I have just discovered that the figure is of Euterpe, the muse of music. Behind the monument was a wall of trees, vibrantly green in the morning sunshine.
A small group of visitors stood in front of the grave. Some took a brief look at the monument then moved on. Other like me stood for a while to pay their respects.
People had left tributes to Chopin at the bottom of the monument: small plants, little posies of flowers, single roses and a few small Polish flags. One tribute caught my eye. It was a sheet of music of one of his compositions, though I could not make out the title clearly. It looked a little rumpled laying on the stone step in front of the monument as there had been rain the day before. A single flower lay across it.
As I stepped back from the grave, a piano began to play behind me. It was one of the nocturnes: delicate and sad. I turned round. A man standing in the group was playing the nocturne on his phone. Instead of listening to it himself, he had turned on the speaker so that we could all hear it. It was his tribute. We all stood still, looking towards the grave, as the tender notes floated on the spring breeze.
I wanted to cry. I am half – Polish after all. If you can’t cry in a cemetery, where can you cry. Poor Frederic so far from his homeland, I thought. Although his heart is buried in a church in Warsaw, in Poland, where his heart always was. And he lives on of course in his music. The nocturne finished, I gave a nod of thanks to the man with the phone and walked on. Short as it was, it was the most moving concert I have ever attended.
I have never visited the cemetery before. It is like a small town itself within the city. There are long avenues of trees between the sections of graves. It made for a peaceful walk in the spring sunshine. Despite having a map, the graves were rather difficult to find, however, as the map only indicated the section they are situated in and the sections are quite large. Also the graves are not in chronological order so recent ones are often laying side by side with ones over a hundred years old or earlier, as the cemetery opened in 1804. Well chronology has no meaning anymore for the dead in eternity.
There are many other famous people buried there and one of my reasons for visiting was to find the grave of Marcel Proust (1871-1922) the novelist. It is the centenary of his death this year and I have been reading his great seven volume novel: ‘In Search of Lost Time’, which I have mentioned in these meditations before. He was a great music lover and adored Chopin’s music, which is mentioned in his novel. I have also been reading several books about Proust himself. One included a map of the places where Proust lived in Paris. He spent most of his life there. With my patient friend Phil, I sought out these places the day before, most of which are near the Madeleine church. So, it was important to discover his final resting place, which is a simple grave of black marble with no monument.
This simplicity was unlike Oscar Wilde’s tomb, which I also visited, He had a simple grave at first having died a pauper in 1900 and was then buried outside Paris in Bagneux. However, he was transferred to Pere Lachaise in 1909 and then a grandiose sphinx – like monument (sculpted in 1911 by Sir Jacob Epstein) was placed there.
So many artists, musicians and writers are buried in the shady avenues of Pere Lachaise. We found some of them including: the composers Rossini and Cherubini, the novelists Balzac and Colette, the singer Edith Piaf and rock musician Jim Morrison from Doors, the actor Yves Montand, the composer Michel Le Grand and George Melies, one of the pioneers of the cinema. I would like to go back to find some others and revisit Frederic, Marcel, and Oscar of course.
Once outside the cemetery we found a good bistro for lunch. Opposite us were the opulent offices of several grand funeral directors. No doubt they provide opulent funerals over the road in the cemetery at a grand price. I began to think that it would be good to be buried in Pere Lachaise, when my time comes, though I doubt that I could afford it. I had this thought not because I would be buried among the cultural elite of the last two hundred years, or because of all the grand monuments, but because of the peaceful avenues of trees. Well who would visit my grave in Paris anyway? Although it would be as good an excuse as any for a Eurostar jaunt for my friends. Perhaps if I was buried there, one of my ex students might leave a few pages of one of my scripts on top of my grave with a flower across it. Perhaps not only as a tribute but also as an apology for the lines they never learnt properly!
The visit to Pere Lachaise was important to me to pay homage, to say thank you to some of those who have enriched my life. It is why I visit Shakespeare’s grave every time I go to Stratford- Upon-Avon.
You may have deduced from my meditations, that I something of a cultural tourist. Does that term exist or have I invented it? Well I am. It is easy for me to be reminded of my cultural tourism as I only have to look around the rooms in my house. Not only are there photos on display from my holidays but also pictures (I have two Rembrandts and a Da Vinci – but only copies of course!); framed posters (two Broadway productions I saw in New York for example) and on the shelves books I bought abroad, and cd’s, souvenirs posing as artefacts and of course my large collection of fridge magnets on display in the kitchen. Not to mention the thousands of photos on my I phone and laptop from my travels!
A photo encapsulates a memory, more than that, it evokes a memory if we look at it for long enough. Sadly these days we tend to snap away on our phones too quickly and look at the photos too quickly too, especially when we are scrolling through them to see which ones we want to delete. But do we really look at the ones that are left after our digital cull?
Along with the cultural souvenirs I have just listed, the photos can also be a trigger to our memory, if we stop and reflect, if we take a moment to remember.
Marcel Proust’s great novel ‘In Search of Lost Time’ is about memory. No-one describes how memories fade in and out of our consciousness as well as he does. He believed that as well as wanting to remember a memory, by looking at a photo for example or by trying to remember one, there is involuntary memory. This is when a memory comes to us clearly and concretely, unaided and unasked for, as a surprise, almost a revelation.
Like my lone Parisian violin and my piano nocturne.
Ave atque Vale – until the next blog.
If you are enjoying my blog, and have not already done so, please sign up below to receive notification of each new blog by e mail. Just add your e mail to ‘Follow’ as it pops up.
And please do pass on the blog address to others who may be interested.
I would also value any feedback on email@example.com or my Facebook page or Twitter.