Chopin and the stingray

Whenever I hear Chopin, it makes me touch a scar on my hand, just between my right thumb and forefinger. The scar, you see, carries a story.

Not long after finishing secondary school – just on 30 years ago now – I went snorkelling with some friends near an old ruined pier. It was a sheltered beach with seaweed beds around, so full of life. We saw flathead and leatherjacket, toadfish and whitebait, crabs and mussels.
6008 sleeveOn the way down, one of my friends had told me how it was possible to catch a ride with a banjo shark. This shark, also known as the fiddler ray, is harmless. The trick was, my friend said, if you saw a banjo shark resting on the bottom, to duckdive down and grab it by the tail. It was fun, he said. “You just have to be sure it is a banjo shark, not a stingray.”

We had been out in the water for a good while, and despite wearing a wetsuit I was feeling the cold, and headed in to shore. I looked down and saw a banjo shark. I checked: no sign of the whip-like tail extension which marks a stingray. I dived down and reached out … With an angry twitch, the stingray shook off the sand concealing its whip-like tail extension, jabbed me in the hand, and swam away.


A stingray. Note the whip-like tail extension

The razor-sharp spine on the stingray’s tail comes with a venom which causes extreme pain. It can kill if you have a weak heart or, as happened to Steve Irwin, are stung in the chest, but if a healthy human is stung on a hand or foot, there is no real danger. I didn’t know this at the time. Blood poured out of the gash (the venom has an anti-coagulant) and excruciating pain started to spread up my arm. I did know from first aid how to handle venomous bites in general: I knew not to rush, to swim steadily back to shore. There I wrapped the wound tightly, and held it high, above the heart.

With my friends’ help, I got to a swimming pool behind the beach, and found an attendant there. He did basic first aid and, very kindly, drove me to hospital.

There was a cassette tape playing in the car, classical piano of some sort. As I held the wrapping tight on my hand and tried to breath slowly – the pain was still spreading, but more slowly – I felt both scared and a complete idiot, but the music was comforting.

“That’s nice, the music”, I said to the kind pool attendant. “What is it?”

“That’s Chopin. Heard of him?”

And so the distinctive sound of a Chopin piano piece, like this lovely etude played by Vlado Perlemuter, always makes me think of the stingray, and I touch the little crescent-shaped scar on my right hand.

  • Artist: Vlado Perlemuter
  • Composer: Frederic Chopin
  • EP Title: Chopin Favourites
  • Track: Side 2, Track 2 “Etude, Op. 10 No. 3”
  • Format: 7” 33⅓ rpm
  • Label: Concert Hall M 959-A
  • Manufactured in: United Kingdom
  • Year: 1961

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Dissolve into it

I mused a little while ago about how the Soviet Union, as oppressive and bureaucratic a society as ever shot a dissident, managed to produce great art. Pianist Sviatoslav Richter (no relation to the earthquake guy) personifies the paradox.

6009 coverBorn just before the Bolshevik Revolution, Richter’s father was German by origin. During the Second World War, this made Richter senior an automatic target of Soviet paranoia, and he was arrested as a spy and shot in 1941.

Young Richter, a largely self-taught musical genius, survived the war and in 1949 won the Stalin Prize for his music. He began to tour extensively, first in Communist countries but later – despite the political tensions of the time – in the West as well. He is widely regarded as one of the finest pianists of the 20th century. I am not qualified to judge, but his playing is certainly lovely beyond words.

Richter’s approach to music was that the player was a channel, a medium, from the composer to the listener.

The interpreter is really an executant, carrying out the composer’s intentions to the letter. He doesn’t add anything that isn’t already in the work. If he is talented, he allows us to glimpse the truth of the work that is in itself a thing of genius and that is reflected in him. He shouldn’t dominate the music, but should dissolve into it.

This track comes from a 1965 EP released on Concert Hall, a budget reissue label. It has a lot of wear, but even so the beauty of Richter’s playing of Schubert’ “Allegretto in C Minor” shines through.

People used to weep, hearing Richter play. Even through the crackle and hiss I understand why.

  • Artist: Sviatoslav Richter
  • Composer: Franz Schubert
  • EP Title: Richter Plays Schubert
  • Side 2, Track 1: “Allegretto in C Minor”
  • Format: 7” EP 33⅓ rpm
  • Label: Concert Hall SMS965
  • Manufactured in: Australia
  • Year: 1965

Many of the records featured on this blog, and hundreds of others, are for sale via Discogs