The Lost Chord

In the early 1990’s a friend in London introduced me to a periodical and a series of cassette tapes intended to reproduce the style of the BBC Home Service of before World War II. I wrote about this stuff long ago in The Invisible Empire of Romantia and The Lighter Romantia. From being an amusing nest of eccentrics educated in English universities, these women truly became a pathetic caricature of what they apparently wanted to revive as opposed to The Pit, the name they gave to the modern world. It seemed at first to be a beautiful Romantic idea about another world, something desired with the deepest Sehnsucht but without any possibility of attaining it. The idea can be attained actually, but through music.

There is a strange old Victorian song set to music by Arthur Sullivan (of Gilbert & Sullivan fame), The Lost Chord.

Seated one day at the organ,
I was weary and ill at ease,
And my fingers wandered idly
Over the noisy keys;
I know not what I was playing,
Or what I was dreaming then,
But I struck one chord of music,
Like the sound of a great Amen,
Like the sound of a great Amen.

It flooded the crimson twilight,
Like the close of an angel’s psalm,
And it lay on my fevered spirit,
With a touch of infinite calm,
It quieted pain and sorrow,
Like love overcoming strife,
It seemed the harmonious echo
From our discordant life,

It linked all the perplexed meanings
Into one perfect peace,
And trembled away into silence,
As if it were loth to cease;
I have sought but I seek it vainly,
That one lost chord divine,
Which came from the soul of the organ,
And entered into mine.

It may be that death’s bright angel
Will speak in that chord again;
It may be that only in Heav’n
I shall hear that great Amen.
It may be that death’s bright angel
Will speak in that chord again;
It may be that only in Heav’n
I shall hear that great Amen.

It might strike us as a grotesque example of Victorian sentimentalism, but there is a message. Unlike the drunken or sleepy organist, I am at my most aware and awake when playing the organ. I am not much of an improviser. I play what I read from the score, and the music is always identified and can be reproduced. This song suggests someone playing almost randomly, in an unconscious state, perhaps drunk and unable to reproduce what he has played.

I find the scenario difficult to imagine, but the theme of the lost and unattainable is a part of Milton’s Paradise Lost up to the Romantics and up to our own times. It is difficult to imagine what Ms Martindale, the inventor of Romantia really wants, something very shallow or a deep aspiration. I suspect that their nostalgia led them to madness. It can happen. Reading C.G. Jung can help us unravel the mess of our own consciousness, to a point. We have to come to terms, make a compromise between the transcendent “chord” and the mundane “reality”. It will be different when we leave this world.

The poet who wrote this song, Adelaide Procter, was probably more deeply conscious of something than what we can imagine of semi-drunken Victorian gentlemen singing around a piano in someone’s parlour after a hearty dinner. Reading about her life reminds me a little of Mary Shelley in her radical feminism and her dark imagination as author of Frankenstein. Procter was a highly popular poet and a learned lady. She attracted the attention of Queen Victoria and must have had an esteemed place in society until her untimely death from TB. Whether or not she was aware, she expressed that sense of having lost something precious in the form of something absolutely intangible and spiritual – musical harmony. Procter was not a musician as far as we know, but was certainly highly sensitive to it.

A chord in a harmonic progression is something very fleeting, occurring in a few seconds, and gives away to other chords as the music progresses. The composition itself is fleeting, and is heard and remembered by the musician and the listeners. The piece can be repeated and played as many times as desired. However, there is another kind of musical composition, the improvisation.

This kind of music is not written. The good musician will plan the piece in his mind and choose a theme and the style. Jazz musicians do the same thing on a set harmonic basis for each instrument of the band. The rhythm is also common, but the notes and details are free. It is another skill, which I am not at ease with. The great organists of Paris like Dupré, Vierne, Widor, Cochereau, Duruflé and others were famed for their improvisation. Perhaps Procter had an idea of someone lazily improvising and daydreaming, losing the thread and basis of his music. Surely this can happen. Improvisation is not repeatable unlike written compositions, unless it is recorded like the piece by Léonce de Saint-Martin. It could be taken as a “dictation”, though this would be very hard work and probably not perfect. Was it is 6/8 time or 3/4? The acoustics of the cathedral and out-of-tune notes might also cause errors of transcription.

For the purposes of this song, the “lost chord” is a symbol. Perhaps it suggests the Paradise Lost of Milton, the Garden of Eden from which man was chased on account of Original Sin. As we grow, subject to the merciless passage of time, we lose our childhood and youth. we lose precious objects by their being stolen or destroyed in a fire. Sometimes we recover lost things like that bunch of keys or something that slipped down the back of the sofa. Loss and gain are a fact of life. What about the fleeting moment, that one single chord of a piece of music? Even a single Amen contains two or more chords, usually in the form of a plagal (subdominant – tonic) or perfect cadence (dominant – tonic). Perhaps the lost chord implies the one we still have. Sullivan was an excellent musician and knew his harmony and counterpoint. No chord can subsist in isolation and make any sense. I switch the wind on, pull out a couple of stops and play a C major chord and nothing else. What did it mean? Was it the tonic in its own key, the dominant of F major. What? It is like a single letter or word on a page. It is comprehensible only in its context.

Perhaps this is one reason why improvisation is not my “thing”, but I prefer to play the music of composers from a printed score. Even when I write English prose, there is a context and a plan, at least in my mind. Then I’m not improvising but composing English prose. It is written and a permanent record. Music is something else.

I have an odd impression on listening to the music of Thomas Tallis who lived and worked in the sixteenth century. He began his musical career working with the Sarum liturgy and survived the Reformation by composing for the Cranmerian texts of the Prayer Book. He avoided getting his head chopped off like so many unfortunates who sinned by indiscretion. As Tallis was almost a kind of Scarlert Pimpernel in his time, his music is ethereal. I can understand how it had such an effect on great English composers like Vaughan Williams and Herbert Howells. The chords and harmonies of these men are not lost, but the men are. They have passed on to another world that we cannot begin to imagine. This is the mystery of death and our yearning for the New World in the Christian faith. How can one avoid thinking of such things while hearing this?

For me, Tallis is the lost chord of the Use of Sarum, the link we have to the old English churches, the villages, the folk traditions and even the last traces of paganism “baptised” into Christianity. This may sound fanciful, but the idea fills every fibre of my being. Procter described how the sleepy organist felt the presence of what was lost. The past has slipped away as we are victims of time and man’s determination to “cancel” history to usher in some infernal dystopia of grim materialism. Music, whether sacred or secular, brings us into the presence of a world that is lost and which we can find “as through a glass darkly” to quote St Paul.

Shakespeare wrote in Twelfth Night:

If music be the food of love, play on;
Give me excess of it, that, surfeiting,
The appetite may sicken, and so die.
That strain again! it had a dying fall:
O, it came o’er my ear like the sweet sound,
That breathes upon a bank of violets,
Stealing and giving odour! Enough; no more:
‘Tis not so sweet now as it was before.
O spirit of love! how quick and fresh art thou,
That, notwithstanding thy capacity
Receiveth as the sea, nought enters there,
Of what validity and pitch soe’er,
But falls into abatement and low price,
Even in a minute: so full of shapes is fancy
That it alone is high fantastical.

Music gives us a glimpse of heaven, of that lost world we will not find here on earth, except through the sounds and harmonies of the voices and instruments. Indeed, it is in heaven that we will find and sing that great Amen.

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