The Sarabande from Bach Cello Suite no. 6, performed by Yo Yo Ma.
And the subsequent Gavotte, from the excellent recent recording by David Watkin:
Definitely not Gilbert & Sullivan
The song was immediately popular on its publication in 1877, and was memorably performed by Italian tenor Enrico Caruso at a benefit concert for the families of the victims of the Titanic sinking at the Metropolitan Opera in New York on 29 April 1912.
The song is also performed movingly in the Mike Leigh film “Topsy Turvy”, focusing on the famous and often fraught partnership between Arthur Sullivan and his librettist WS Gilbert.
Almost achingly Victorian in style, The Lost Chord has more than a shade of morbidity to it, together with that 19th century greater ease and familiarity with death and loss, which 140 years of medical advances have incrementally, thankfully, deprived us.
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 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 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!
Image: Gilbert and Sullivan Archive
Thank you for the music
The late Leonard Bernstein, whose 98th birthday would have been today, conducting Candide Overture from a concert performance of Candide with the London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, recorded in December 1989.
This performance took place just a few short years before I started the first of many pilgrimages to the Barbican Centre to see the LSO perform. Many faces in the orchestra, some sadly now departed, are familiar to me.
Leonard Bernstein is one of my heroes – an exuberant man brimming over with talent and energy, someone who knew exactly what he wanted to do with his life, and who got on and did it: making music in all its glorious forms.
Happy birthday, Maestro.
A flawed, beautiful 20th century masterpiece
Is there a more beautiful 20th century chorale than “Almighty Father”, the hushed invocation from Leonard Bernstein’s Mass? If so, I struggle to bring one to mind.
Almighty Father, incline thine ear
Bless us, and all those who have gathered here
Thine angel send us,
who shall defend us all.
And fill with grace,
All who dwell in this place.
Leonard Bernstein is my favourite composer. Several of his compositions make my Top 50 list – Serenade for Violin and Strings in particular, but also Chichester Psalms and Symphony no. 2, The Age of Anxiety – and while other pieces of music by other composers often get more of a hearing on my iPhone, it is my contention that these Bernstein compositions contain some of the most beautiful (and profoundly human) music ever written.
This is certainly the case with Mass. As to whether Bernstein’s dramatic staged reworking of the Latin Mass works as a cohesive whole, my answer probably varies day by day and according to my mood. Mass is certainly transcendent, flawed, beautiful, stark, cheesy, smug, original in places, derivative in others and often achingly rooted in 1970s style.
The orchestral meditations, interspersed throughout the piece, have a uniquely haunting beauty of their own – particularly the first meditation, whose desolate questioning in the ethereal violin phrase followed by the slowly-building crisis and final, soothing, repeated falling notes on the organ are about as close to a religious experience as music has yet taken me.
A rather mediocre recording of the first meditation is here:
The complete recording of a recent (2012) performance of Mass at the BBC Proms is below:
Some restorative Bach for Sunday afternoon
The late, great Glenn Gould dissects one of my favourite fugues from the Well-Tempered Clavier, Fugue no. 9 from Book II.
As Glenn Gould says, at the conclusion of his discussion with biographer Bruno Monsaingeon:
It’s rudimentary material, but it makes for one of the most gloriously fulfilled codas he [Bach] ever wrote, I think.
True. Unlike the brisk and rather superficial version of this fugue in Gould’s complete recording of the WTC, here he takes it at a funereal pace, allowing each voice to truly sing on its own. The slow, steady accumulative effect of Bach’s ingeniously weaved, achingly unresolved theme makes the incredible catharsis of the final coda all the greater.
Here is the complete performance: