Arthur Sullivan wrote a lot of popular “parlor music” – songs that were intended to be played and sung in middle-class homes by amateur performers in the days before radio, television and so on.
One of his most famous works is called “The Lost Chord.” The text is a poem by Adelaide Proctor, which was published in The English Woman’s Journal in 1860. Sullivan is said to have struggled for years to set the poem to music, but finally found his way to expressing himself musically in 1877, as he sat by the bedside of his dying brother Frederick.
Fred Sullivan had trained as an architect, but soon switched to the stage. Arthur and Fred were very close, and Fred sang and acted in a number of his brother’s works, including Cox and Box, Thespis, and The Contrabandista. Fred also created the role of The Learned Judge in the original performance of Trial by Jury. Unfortunately, he fell ill in 1876 and died in 1877 at the age of 39.
The song is usually understood to be sentimental and religious in nature, but an interesting analysis of its meaning presented at Songs of the Victorians suggests that it’s actually a feminist poem – describing the sentiments of Victorian women who suffered a “discordant life” because of gender inequality, and expressing the feeling that harmony would only be achieved in the afterlife.
The text of the poem, along with a video of a performance from 2011, can be found below. Which reading do you prefer?
The Lost Chord
Seated one day at the organ, I was weary and ill at ease,
And my fingers wander’d idly over the noisy keys;
I knew 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 fever’d spirit with a touch of infinite calm.
It quieted pain and sorrow like love overcoming strife,
It seem’d the harmonious echo from our discordant life.
It link’d all 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 enter’d 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!