The Lost Chord

As his brother lay dying, composer Arthur Sullivan was inspired to set the music to a poem previously written by an English poetess named Adeline Anne Proctor called “The Lost Chord [1].” The song immediately became popular, and one of the singers who became famous for singing this song was a lady named Fanny Ronalds, who happened to be his mistress. Ronalds, who separated from her husband in 1867 but never got a divorce from him, was herself an accomplished adulteress who managed to be the mistress of Winston Churchill’s maternal grandfather (although she was also close friends with his daughter) as well as the Prince of Wales before having a long-term but exceedingly discreet relationship with Sullivan, aborting two unborn children conceived by him in order to preserve a façade of moral rectitude, as Sullivan was unwilling even to marry a divorcee, but apparently had no problems quietly committing adultery with a woman and writing love letters to her calling her “Dear Heart” (apparently). Sullivan himself is known as half of the team of Gilbert & Sullivan famous for plays like The Pirates of Penzance, and he also composed the well-known hymn “Onward Christian Soldiers,” which appears in many hymnals (including the hymnals of my own denomination). Sullivan had been inspired to write by death before, as his work “Overture In C (In Memoriam)” was written in honor of his father. Clearly, these were very complicated people, who were sociable and well-off, intensely creative, who considered themselves to be good Christians concerned with reputation, and capable of being moved to great art when reflecting upon death (and presumably judgment) but also capable of being immensely wicked sinners whose public mask did not match their private virtue, such as it was.

The poem by Ms. Proctor itself describes a phenomenon that is well known to many writers of words and music. I will not attempt to give a close analysis of the poem, but it does show some resonance in such contemporary songs as “Hallelujah” by Jeff Buckley:

“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.

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 perplexèd 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 grand Amen.”

Over and over again, as one talks to songwriters, one hears a common refrain when it comes to the writing of their most melodic songs. Bands such as REM, Augustanana [2], and others have concurred with the poetess that there seems something almost effortless about writing a song such as this one. It is almost as if there is a simple song that hangs in some non-material realm that simply spills into the mind, and one writes it down, and often it resonates deeply with others as well in the way that more labored and complicated works do not. Many writers and musicians have written one catchy song in this vein and have never managed to write anything remotely as popular ever again, no matter how hard they have tried. Even Sullivan, who was an accomplished writer, felt this to be the pinnacle of his achievement as far as individual songs was concerned. We may disagree with him on this, but it was certainly a sincere sentiment based on the emotional weight of the song involving the death of his brother. No doubt the same is true for many other writers and musicians who manage to capture lightning in a bottle once, never to see it again. Art is strange like that, in that we search our lives for that divine resolution to the discordant and inharmonious nature of our lives, only to find that resolution fleeting and evanescent, not lasting at all. That which we grasp for is like the winds or the sands slipping through our fingers, something that we cannot hold onto no matter how diligently we try.

The song itself has endured as well in its own unusual ways. Several films have been given the title “The Lost Chord” or some close variant thereof. Jimmy Durante and the Gershwins wrote pieces inspired by the song, one of which inspired an album by The Moody Blues titled [3] “In Search Of The Lost Chord.” It has been used in jokey songs about cannibals as well as in barbershop music. It has been used in science fiction as well as more literary works, including Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome, and even inspired a not-for-profit group in New England to help encourage children from impoverished backgrounds to become familiar with arts and music. I know that as for me, I am grateful to my own exposure to music as a child [4] as a way of providing a somewhat timid and sensitive and intensely creative child with exposure to the broader world of culture that helped elevate my mind and spirit from the squalid and deeply horrifying circumstances of my youth. Likewise, I have seen the elevating nature of music and art in general to others I have known from similar backgrounds to my own, and have been pleased to have such friends whose class has not depended on wealth, but has been acquired through hard work and a willingness to overcome one’s fears and anxieties in performance. We may all be searching for that last chord, not knowing if we will hear it until our final breaths, but that does not stop us from searching for harmony and wholeness in our lives, and in our art as well.

[1] See, for example:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Lost_Chord

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arthur_Sullivan

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fanny_Ronalds

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Onward,_Christian_Soldiers

[2] https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2014/05/06/ash-and-ember/

[3] https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2011/06/15/why-arent-they-in-the-rock-roll-hall-of-fame-the-moody-blues/

[4] See, for example:

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2011/03/27/on-becoming-a-violist/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2011/03/26/the-accidental-violist/

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in Christianity, History, Music History, Musings and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to The Lost Chord

  1. Pingback: Welcome To My Eruv | Edge Induced Cohesion

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