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
'The Lost Chord' is a well-known and much-loved 19th-Century song - a setting by Arthur S Sullivan (1842 - 1900) of words by poet Adelaide A Procter (1825 - 1864).
The words and score can be found on the Internet, though many people will recognise those first lines, and perhaps as many would recognise the tune.
Adelaide Procter is little known today, even as her pseudonym, Mary Berwick. She was, among other things, a friend of Charles Dickens, who spoke of
'...the enthusiasm for doing good that filled his young friend's heart.'
'...the ceaseless labours which she undertook in the cause of charity. She visited the sick; she taught the ignorant; she aided the widening of woman's sphere of exertion.'
The words are part of her limited output of poems, which are
'remarkable for their simplicity and directness of style .... songs, whose full beauty can not be appreciated until we hear them sung.'
Of the two contributors, Arthur Sullivan, is rather better known as one half of Gilbert and Sullivan, the partnership which gave us the light (or comic) opera collection of some 14 pieces, presented by the D'Oyly Carte company. Perhaps the best known are such gems as The Mikado, The Gondoliers, The Pirates of Penzance and HMS Pinafore.
Sullivan wrote his contribution to 'The Lost Chord' in 1876, after he had for several years been trying to set Procter's words to music. He didn't reach his goal until his brother Frederic, to whom he was very close, died a lingering death. Sullivan's grief seems to have wrung from him the setting for those words.
The song was one of the very earliest pieces of recorded music - it may indeed have been the first ever. It is of interest because of its insight into what was then leading edge technology.Thomas Edison had sent a 'perfected' phonograph machine to one George Gouraud in London, who recorded a programme and presented it at a press conference in August 1888. The press then sent a copy of the programme to Edison, which reinforced his thought that such recordings could become a replacement for written mail (and we think e-mail is modern!)
Later, Sullivan attended one of Gouroud's 'phonograph parties' and recorded a notably prophetic message, which was sent to Edison. In part it said:
'...astonished at the wonderful power you have developed, and terrified at the thought that so much hideous and bad music may be put on record for ever .... But all the same .... I congratulate you with all my heart on this wonderful discovery.'
On 29 April, 1912 it was performed by Enrico Caruso, at The Metropolitan Opera house, a concert for the benefit of families of the Titanic disaster victims. Earlier that day, Caruso had recorded the song for the Victor Talking Machine Company, another historic (and slightly more legible) archive.
The BBC has sponsored several concerts over the years that have included the song, however, at the time of writing, none of them are available for listening; neither are free downloads available elsewhere on the web - disappointing, yet understandable.
A mature, mellow solo voice accompanied by an organ or harmonium is guaranteed to send shivers down your back.