Chopin’s Lesson: May 2017

“After playing Chopin, I feel as if I had been weeping over sins that I had never committed, and mourning over tragedies that were not my own.” This is a quotation by Oscar Wilde, displayed on the back cover of last year’s Deutsche Grammophon edition of the Polish composer’s complete works. When I first read the sentence, I must confess that it truly captivated me. The words turned round and round in my head, as I tried to wrestle with them in the hope of deciphering their ultimate truth. For a time, however, I only seemed capable of drawing possible parallels between the lives of the two artists, which did not lead to a satisfactory understanding of Wilde’s bold statement. Until on one particular day, when I was delivering a talk on citizenship and multilingualism at a national conference in Montreal, something clicked in my mind.

In the first part of my talk, I centred on the concept of citizenship, given that TFS is a clear leader on this front. I analyzed different sources and concluded that character education cannot be an end in itself, as it focuses on the individual, while in fact we can only realize our full potential as human beings by trying to have a positive impact on the people around us and on society as a whole. One of our main goals as educators should therefore be, I said, not so much to build character in our students for its own sake, as to help them develop into responsible citizens willing to contribute to the progress of humankind. 

Swiss philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote extensively on this point and was prophetic when he announced that “men have reached the point at which obstacles to their survival in the state of nature overpower each individual’s resources for maintaining himself in that state, so this primitive condition cannot go on: the human race will perish unless it changes its manner of existence.” Isn’t this the premise of current environmental groups insisting that life will disappear from our planet unless we become responsible global citizens who value the common good above individual and national interests? Raising awareness on this issue is crucial to our future and that is why we recently organized Earth Week at school, as we do each year.

In my speech, I went on to discuss the nature and importance of language. If the purpose of using any given language (including our mother tongue) is to allow us to communicate ideas effectively, I contended that we must pay attention to a number of key linguistic areas, most particularly clarity of enunciation, wealth of vocabulary, grammatical accuracy, syntactic complexity and an ability to express a range of functions. Let me give you a couple of examples of what I meant. How could we understand medieval architecture or certain areas of biology if we did not know such words as “buttress” or “epigenetics”? Indeed, every new term we learn gives us a new concept. Such is the power of vocabulary! Likewise, how could we construct proper lines of argumentation in history or physics, if we lacked conjunctions expressing cause, consequence, goal, hypothesis, opposition or comparison? This is tantamount to saying that our depth of thought is the direct result of our linguistic sophistication. In other words, the better our linguistic competence is, the more complex our ideas will be in the different fields of knowledge.

Imagine, then, the power of mastering not just one, but several languages. If Charlemagne once said that “to have another language is to possess a second soul,” more recently Lanza del Vasto echoed this idea by stating that “to address someone in his own language is like visiting him in his own home, as opposed to chatting with him in the street.” The basic point behind both quotations is that each language gives us a different and unique perspective on reality and that, therefore, being multilingual helps us build bridges across cultures. In a sense, the rift between anglophone and francophone Canada, in terms of the respective historical understanding of the Battle of the Plains of Abraham, is due to a difference not in ideology but in language: the English and French traditions tell the story in their own particular way. It could also be argued that languages allow us to travel seamlessly in space and time from the heroic worlds of ancient Mesopotamia to the palaces of the Italian Renaissance and the forests and lakes of Cree First Nations. In short, languages make it possible for us to understand the richness and diversity of human experience.

In Montreal, I brought together the two main strands of my talk by arguing that depth of thought and a multiplicity of perspectives, as made possible by linguistic sophistication and multilingualism, are necessary features of the ideal 21st-century citizen. I asserted that this approach is much more profound than the hollow rhetoric often bandied about in the media. Global citizenship is not a fashionable tag with which to make schools more attractive, but a complex concept that should imbue our day-to-day dealings with students both inside and outside the classroom. It is about enabling them to acquire an international perspective through the careful and multilayered consideration of such difficult issues as migrations, natural resources, racism, anti-Semitism and gender discrimination, among others. More generally, it is about getting them to dig deeper into the universal human soul.

That is the crux of my personal quest for self-improvement. Digging deeper into our universal soul is what I tried to do when I first read Mirabeau’s speech on human rights, as delivered on August 17, 1789, or when I explored Boualem Sansal’s writings on his native Algeria or Alain Mabanckou’s portrayal of Congo after an absence of 23 years. That is what I tried to do when I attended a recital at Koerner Hall by Philippe Jaroussky, a French countertenor who sang highly emotive Italian arias by Händel, a German composer who spent much of his life in England. That is what Akira Kurosawa tried to do when he transposed Shakespeare’s “King Lear” to the Sengoku period of Japanese history in his film “Ran.” That is what our Senior School students tried to do in last month’s Jacques Brel show, when the lyrics on love and old age by this Belgian songwriter moved the audience to both sorrow and elation. 

The universal human experience. As I pronounced these words to close my speech in Montreal, it suddenly dawned on me that this is precisely what Oscar Wilde must have felt when he played Chopin. The former was born five years after the death of the latter, but they were kindred spirits in a number of ways. During his imprisonment, Wilde must have reflected on how the Romantic pianist felt when his relationship with George Sand became the butt of social ridicule, and even hatred, as the lovers were accused of immorality. Well beyond biographical parallels, the Irish writer learnt an important lesson from Chopin: we become truly universal when we engage in profound human communication at every level, when we allow ourselves to be fully immersed, wherever we are on the planet, in what constitutes the common human experience. 

Global citizenship is thus intimately related to linguistic sophistication, multilingualism, an international outlook and a universal spirit. This is not an easy concept to sell in a marketing campaign, but it would be even more difficult (as totally unethical) not to try to put it into practice in our school.

We owe it to Chopin. Most importantly, we owe it to our students.

Dr. Josep L. González
Head of School