For days, I did nothing except lie among the white sheets, coughing & looking up at the high, white ceiling. I ran my fingers over the bed-linen, following the Beethoven & Bach pieces I had tried to master at the Conservatoire. When I had tired of their complex progressions, I tried Schumann & Chopin, but I soon grew frustrated with their vapid romanticism. I ceased my finger movements & cast my gaze down the length of my immobile body.
How large the sheet was, how it enveloped me in its lavendered whiteness. What dreams & images were open to me if only I could return to such a state of purity, antiquity & tranquillity? How sick I was of the sublime. Damn Wagner! I wanted something altogether less grandiose. What I needed was to create my own images, not recreate someone else’s ideas. Images are so much more demanding than ideas. What I needed was repetition, not progression. This was the door into my world & I had found the key. It was so simple, yet often the simplest things are psychologically the most complex. Locks are nothing other than psychological thresholds.
With this in mind, I began composing in earnest. I pictured Hugo’s children in Greek vestments guarding his urn. What if I composed pieces that were as limpid & inescapably plastic as a Greek vase or urn? I began running my fingers over the bed-linen again. What if my left hand looped like an ostinato, rather than progressed? Then there would be a cycle & not a development. If there was a cycle, the passage of time would be defeated because it would be made to recur. There is grace in curves, but straight lines are so inflexible. My pieces would be complete in themselves, but the cycle they followed would extend to infinity. They would not be heard, they would be overheard. Our lives would be shorter than theirs, & the only thing that would remain mysterious about them would not be their form, but their formation. They would seem found, not made.
I composed three white-key melodies over the remaining weeks I lay in bed. I had to commit tours de force to get one bar to stand up, but I managed it in the end. They were three versions of the same theme, like walking round a piece of sculpture & viewing it from three different angles. They were subjects for infinite meditation. The first I indicated to be played douloureux, the second triste & the third grave. Collectively, I named them Gymnopédies, after the dances performed by the naked children of Sparta in honour of Apollo. Purity, antiquity & tranquillity. I had found my way at last.
Taken from Richard Skinner's The Velvet Gentleman