“The Lost Chord”, a song by Sir Arthur Sullivan, setting to music a poem by Adelaide Anne Procter. In this 1939 recording, the song is performed by British tenor Webster Booth.
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!
Ethereal, desolate, beautiful choral music by Vaughan Williams
From the hushed and mystical opening to the blazing fanfares and choruses which follow, the rarely heard oratorio Sancta Civitas (The Holy City) by Ralph Vaughan Williams is one of that composer’s finest compositions and a marvellous addition to the English choral music tradition.
I had the privilege to be at a performance of this work last summer as part of the BBC Proms 2015 season (a much better season, incidentally, than this year’s truly awful, themeless programming – barely one concert worth attending) conducted by the superb Mark Elder and the Hallé Orchestra and Choir.
Though it lacks the splashy, memorable tunefulness of, say, Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast (which also focuses on the fall of Babylon), Sancta Civitas is no less dramatic, with blazing brass and quickly moving strings as the chorus intones “His eyes were as a flame of fire, and on his head were many crowns” – and “many crowns” crisply emphasised by percussion, adding suitably apocalyptic weight to these extracts from the Book of Revelation.
The offstage boys chorus, trumpet and tenor solo are also used to great effect – acoustically, this worked particularly well in the Proms setting of the Royal Albert Hall – and the piece closes in the same foreboding murmur in which it begins.
As Michael Steinberg puts it in “Choral Masterworks: A Listener’s Guide”, describing the culmination of the piece:
And now comes the miracle in this great work, a new voice, a solo tenor, saved for this moment, and singing just sixteen words: “Behold, I come quickly, I am the bright and the morning star. Surely I come quickly.” Barely above the threshold of audibility the choir, ppp and parlando, responds: “Amen. Even so, come, Lord.” And with last recollections of the opening music, the vision of Sancta Civitas fades beyond our hearing.
Sancta Civitas is performed all too rarely, which is a great shame. The score possesses a rare, brooding, desolate beauty – particularly understandable, perhaps, given that it was composed in 1923-5 and had its premiere during the 1926 General Strike, so soon after the guns of the First World War fell silent.
Religiously speaking, this is an inescapably austere vision of the Holy City. No clouds and rainbows and reunions with long-deceased pets here; this is a vision of the Holy presence of God which strikes awe and no small amount of fear in the heart. Part of me responds positively to this – often the Christian faith today seems to be sanitised or presented in U-rated form, be it deliberately childish-sounding worship songs or watered down teaching of core doctrine. Sancta Civitas evokes something much more traditional and even severe, which in some ways is no bad thing.
Regardless: here is quintessentially Modern English choral music at its very best – but you probably have to be in the right mood.
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.
If you buy the NHS Choir’s mediocre Christmas ditty you are part of the problem, not the solution
Imagine that a large, critical government department was gradually but incessantly becoming less and less fit for purpose.
Suppose that (say) HM Revenue & Customs suffered from major failures of management and leadership, an outdated structure, a confused remit and an ever-increasing list of responsibilities coupled with constantly changing priorities. What should be done?
Was your first thought the idea that a group of HMRC employees should get together and release a song with the hope of reaching the Christmas No. 1 slot in the charts? Did you think – in a moment of epiphany – that recording a Christmas song would in any way address the issues with that organisation, or that any public goodwill generated by the song would somehow make the various deep-rooted organisational problems and resource constraints melt away?
Probably not. You would most likely want to see some kind of hard-headed, evidence-based action plan to turn things around, not a cheesy song that pretended everything was great. But this “sing your problems away” approach is exactly what is happening today, not with HMRC but rather with the NHS. And now we are all being asked to allow ourselves to be swept up in the self-deception, mindlessly tweeting our support for an organisation – and model of healthcare delivery – which becomes more out of its depth and more inadequate to our needs with every passing day.
The Lewisham and Greenwich NHS Choir are leading the in way in the race for the 2015 Christmas Number one, as the battle to secure the top spot heats up.
According to initial reports from the Official Charts Company, the choir’s track A Bridge Over You – a mash-up of Simon and Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Water and Coldplay’s Fix You – is currently ahead of rivals Justin Bieber and Louisa Johnson.
But with the track leading the way by just under 5,000 sales, it’s still looking likely to be a three way race for the top spot.
The NHS choir could also receive a boost following the release of the accompanying video earlier this week.
That video is the one shown at the top of this piece.
But this piece of lazy, self-congratulatory, virtue-signalling NHS worship is nothing to be proud of and certainly not something which any engaged and informed citizen should support.
Why? A couple of reasons:
1. First of all, it’s a poor piece of music making. It’s a bad mashup, even by the low standards of most mashups. It takes one timeless classic (the Simon & Garfunkel) and one decent contemporary song (the Coldplay) and unimaginitively smooshes them together in a way which somehow manages to destroy or obfuscate the best of both pieces.
But of course, we can’t possibly acknowledge this fact, because:
2. Second, the video is emotionally manipulative twaddle, yet more unthinking pro-NHS propaganda of the kind that will ensure Britain’s healthcare system continues to lurch, unreformed, from crisis to crisis for another seventy years. And the fact that the propaganda is produced not by government diktat but by zealous citizens who believe they are working for the Greater Good only makes it all the more insidious.
“Aren’t NHS workers wonderful?”, the video asks us to ponder. Yes, I suppose so, but no more so than those who work for HM Revenue & Customs. Both perform a vital service, and both draw a government paycheque at cost to the taxpayer. And yet we all know that if George Osborne’s Treasury barbershop ensemble released an album of Christmas classics it would already be festering in bargain bins and languishing at the very bottom of the charts.
Thus, over five tedious minutes of this particular pseudo-inspirational dirge, we are treated to scenes of saintly NHS workers helping wobbly old people stand up from chairs, therapists teaching amputees how to walk again, premature babies being nursed to health, and other everyday scenes of hospital life. Are these heartwarming scenes? Sure they are. Are they unique to the NHS? Hell no.
“What other organisation but the NHS could possibly do any these things?”, screams the message from the video. After all, we all know that old people, premature babies and the disabled are simply thrown into woodchipping machines and disposed of in other advanced countries without an NHS. Only in Britain with “our NHS” (genuflect) do people receive healthcare free at the point of use.
Except that none of that is true. Britain is not an island of enlightened compassion in a sea of cruelty and denied cancer treatments. And precisely zero countries are knocking on our front door and sending in their experts to learn about how we organise healthcare in this country so that they can replicate our system back at home. Shouldn’t that maybe tell us something, and cause us to take a pause from the incessant, self-satisfied boasting?
This isn’t an attack on NHS workers. It’s not even an attack on the Lewisham and Greenwich NHS Choir, even though their unremarkable song no more deserves to be Christmas No. 1 than will the next inevitable re-release of “Feed the World”.
This is an attack on our unthinking, embarrassing commitment to the NHS model, our apparent desire as a nation to worship what is in fact an immensely powerful government department, and the sanctimonious belief that by propelling this mediocre song to the top of the charts in time for Christmas we are making any positive contribution toward the future of British healthcare (beyond the admittedly welcome charitable donation).
We can sing songs about the NHS until we are blue in the face (and the number of songs is growing – how long until they coin an official anthem?), but it will do nothing to change the fact that a centralised model of state-funded and state-delivered healthcare designed in the post-war 1940s is highly unlikely to be the optimal solution in the year 2015.
Singing songs in praise of Aneurin Bevan’s rusting creation will do nothing to address the cold, hard truth that rising life expectancies and the continual developments of new, expensive treatments can only be tackled by an unreformed NHS if there are immediate, dramatic increases in personal taxation. For everyone, not just the Evil Bankers, of whom there are sadly not enough.
But sure, let’s make the NHS Choir song the number 1 Christmas single. Then let’s all sit back and smugly reflect on what right-on, progressive people we are for spurning Simon Cowell’s latest manufactured hit-by-numbers offering in favour of doctors and nurses who sing in their spare time. Let’s keep pretending that we alone, of all nations, stumbled upon the optimal way to deliver top quality healthcare to a growing, ageing population, back when we were still digging ourselves out of the rubble of World War 2.
It’s ironic. The NHS Choir is warbling away about “trying to fix” us this Christmas, when it is hagiographic stunts like this which mean we may never summon the political will required to fix (or replace) the NHS.
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