Prélude No. 1 – Warm-up
Beautifully rich C major chords exchange conversation with chromatic harmonies. I yield with my hands the reluctant pain that accompanies the joy in Chopin’s melodies.
No. 15 “Raindrop Prélude” & No. 5 – Combatting Innocence
I was ten and naïve when the treacherous growth of leukemia consumed my sister’s life. The first time JieJie (Chinese for “older sister”) battled cancer, the experience passed like torrential rain, muddying the reality that I hesitated to face. In moments when emotional impacts brand deeper than memories, music best fills the gap that yearns to communicate.
“The Raindrop Prelude” was the first prelude I learned of Chopin’s Opus 28 for piano. I remember gingerly curling my fingers to project each note, playing a dainty and naïve melody that symbolized raindrops. Its repetitions soothed me like a nursery rhyme. I remember a resonant C-sharp minor chorus growing in the bass, interrupting a melody that was so once so near. After this thunderous section, I loved returning to the sweet, dolce motif from the beginning. It felt so secure.
The short, quirky Prélude No. 5 has expansive arpeggios that my little hands couldn’t wrap around.
Perhaps my tender age explains why I had such difficulty wrapping my head around the consequences of her illness. I trivialized everything about the hospital. Perhaps she did too, but for a different reason. With my sister’s humor and imagination, even the red, glowing pulse-measurer on her finger was just a spoof on “E.T. phone home.” It was not until I saw her baldness that I realized my superhero had clay feet. Yet, I refused to admit to seeing her future hinged between life and death. Soon, the constant IVs in JieJie’s arm prevented us from sharing our only common experience: playing music.
No. 7 & 8 – Questions Unanswered
JieJie always says she loves No. 7 for its simplicity and ephemeral beauty. To me, the simple theme also expresses confusion and curiosity. The major key dwells here and there, never settling.
Our lives continued after the first phase, Intensive Chemotherapy, though on an uneven platform with fear disturbing the balance. She spent two years of Remission at college. I found myself at ease in my Middle School days, allowing the past two years to collect dust in my memory. I was generally happy, but the strain with which I revisited those memories was like lifting a sliver of a magazine out from the huge weight of a dictionary.
No. 7 ends with a carefree cadence, an unsatisfying and ominous answer to its harrowing middle section.
Would she complete Remission? Can JieJie return to ordinary life merely donning looser-fitting clothes and a knitted cap?
Chopin was careful about the order of his preludes. Each major prelude is followed by the relative minor key. Instability in moods, as Chopin knew, is only natural in music. The F-sharp minor prelude follows No. 7. It has an urgent, breathless quality to it.
She relapsed the summer before 8th grade. Classmates fretted over carpooling to Bat Mitzvahs while I worried about getting rides to the hospital after school. I ran ahead of the irrelevant middle school culture, which rendered me isolated, but stronger. All of our personal lives were at a standstill, forced to confront another devastating blow. My parents were worn out, but I was ready to redeem myself with newfound strengths.
Understanding what was at stake, I began proactively mending the bridge across an enlarging gap between JieJie and me. I did what I could, cooking her favorite pan-fried noodles or watching movies with her. I tried to remedy her grimaces when the nurse pronounced medication names. We joked about the EKG’s obnoxious sounds and played tunes on the bedside remote buttons—we created our own prelude.
No. 19 – “Reine Freude”
A German pianist once told me this prelude’s popular name, “Pure Joy.” The staccato notes imitate children’s feet running across green lawns.
Then, the news came. “Lina!! Your bone marrow is a perfect match!!” With familiar wit, JieJie’s fatigued voice said “Lina, I guess we’re related after all.” Never was I so overjoyed to hear her teasing humor. I felt like a child again.
No. 24 & 1 – Full Circle
I easily lose myself in the intensity of the final D minor prelude. Wide arpeggios flourish effortlessly under capable hands. I forget about the notes and start to listen to fruit of my labor: music.
I never feared physical suffering as a part of the bone marrow transplant—the joy, relief, and inexplicable power I felt overshadowed any suffering I was about to endure. Pain simply wasn’t relevant to the fact that I could make my sister well again. My unique ability to be her cure was the greatest gift I could possibly receive.
I finish practicing with Prelude No. 1. Humbled by peaceful harmonies, I sit transfixed.