An archive and analysis of parlor and art song settings of Victorian poems

In Search of the "Lost Chord": Sounding the Silent Song of Procter's Poem

Although "A Lost Chord" has frequently been cast as a straightforwardly domestic, sentimental, and religious poem, its original publication in The English Woman's Journal (March 1860) challenges that interpretation, as the poem meditates on the role of women's rights and the possibility of a resolution to issues of domestic disharmony. In the context of its second publication, the collected works volume Legends and Lyrics (1861), Procter's poem appears to embody the sentimental ideal, but instead dramatizes the speaker's failed attempt to express in words the importance of lost harmony. Sullivan's musical setting undercuts the expected sentimental solace and grants the poem new access to the political and social message of its two publication contexts while giving voice to the silent song on the page: it brings together both the feminist and the religiously questioning readings. By examining the musical reception history of Procter's poem through multiple incarnations and remediations, we can find this "lost chord" and its overlooked commentaries on women's lives and religious doubt and reinstate it in the polyphony of critical discourse.

Adelaide Anne Procter (1825-1864) was extremely popular during the Victorian period, and her works were greatly admired by many pivotal figures: Charles Dickens wrote an introduction to the 1866 edition of her collected works, Legends and Lyrics, and Coventry Patmore once claimed that the "present demand" for her poetry was "far in excess of that for the writings of any living poet, except Mr Tennyson" (qtd. Gregory 1). She was also Queen Victoria's favorite poet (Gregory 62). Her poetry appeared in such prominent periodicals as Household Words, All the Year Round, and The Cornhill Magazine and was renowned for what Gill Gregory calls her "invariably simple and direct language and strongly affective rhetoric" (3). She also advocated for women's rights: she was a member of the Portfolio Society (an all-female debating group attended by many radicals (Gregory, Life and Works, 28)) and the co-founder of the "Society for Promoting the Employment of Women" (Lacey 11). In spite of her popularity during the Victorian era, she is generally known today only for her poem "A Lost Chord" and remembered primarily because of Sullivan's musical setting (3). "A Lost Chord" is a short poem spoken from the point of view of a young woman who, while absent-mindedly improvising at the organ, plays a chord so transcendent and calming, she believes it must have been sent to her from heaven. Although she tries to find it again, she fails, and concludes that she may have to wait until the afterlife to hear it, saying "It may be that only in Heaven / I shall hear that grand Amen" (27-28).

Although "A Lost Chord" has frequently been cast as a straightforwardly domestic and religious poem, the history of The English Woman's Journal, founded in March of 1858 and produced until 1864, complicates that interpretation. The Journal's two editors, Bessie Parkes and Matilda Hays, were Procter's close friends, and she dedicated her first volume of poetry to the latter (Gregory, Life and Works, 24). Hays herself was quite a revolutionary figure; she translated the works of George Sand, wrote novels, dressed in men's clothing, and lived with Harriet Hosmer, a female sculptor, for a few years in the 1850s (25). The Journal, like its co-editors, had a progressive agenda; according to David Doughan, it was known as a feminist journal, and its offices were located in the Langham Place Circle, the unofficial headquarters of the early British feminist movement (2). The Journal's prose covered many different topics, but it tended to feature stories on "women's property rights, conditions in prisons and lunatic asylums and assisted emigration for women," and on women's employment (Gregory, Life and Works, 25-26). In its original publication in The English Woman's Journal, "A Lost Chord" meditates on women's rights and the problems of gender inequality. Although the poem does not address such issues explicitly, in the context of articles on the trials and tribulations of women's lives, the speaker's description of her feeling "weary and ill at ease" (2) and of her "discordant life" (16) appear to result from the unequal state of affairs between men and women. Even the divine chord that sounds like "a great Amen" (8) meditates on gender relations because of its acoustical similarity to "all men." The "pain and sorrow," "strife" (13-14) and "perplexed meanings" (18) that plague the speaker also resound with her frustration at social discord. Additionally, if we assume that the speaker is a woman as both Procter's own gender and conventions of the lyric "I" would suggest, then her organ playing itself is a sociopolitical statement, since women were frequently not permitted to be church organists (Barger 38). Either she is a rebel, sneaking into a church to practice, or she is playing on a harmonium, a domestic reed organ, as the only outlet for her musical worship. In this context, the religious turn at the poem's end provides the only glimpse of consolation, and a rather defeatist consolation at that: although inequality may be resolved in the afterlife, it will most likely never be resolved on Earth.

This reading gains greater strength when the poem is placed in the context of the issue in which it was published. The section in the Journal that precedes the poem discussed the cruel effects of ship conditions on women emigrants and ended with an implicit question about the future of these people and this cause: "How the matter will be eventually decided we cannot venture to predict" (36). Procter's own questioning conclusion (which reads "It may be that only in Heaven / I shall hear that grand Amen" (17-28)) therefore hauntingly echoes its predecessor's sentiments and further casts it as part of a feminist project.

The poem also transitions nicely into the ensuing work, a prose piece entitled "Every-Day Ghosts By a Haunted Man," which discusses the dangers of being haunted by memories and "shadows" and of "nursing up feelings which are meant to grow dim and fade, the perverse refastening of links which are intended to be broken" (37). Since "A Lost Chord" describes the sensation of searching for the ghost of a chord that haunts her memory (she tried multiple times to recreate it) and ends with the idea of death, it seems to be in dialogue with this prose piece, especially since the story itself mentions music (it claims that "forlorn" is the most "musical word in the language") and poetry (it describes writing "a sonnet of a melancholy nature") (37). When the "haunted man" asks "who does not know the power of sound[?]"(40) and describes the sensation of hearing an "old organ" (41) that reminds him of the past, readers likewise may feel haunted by their pasts: the experience of reading "A Lost Chord." As the story progresses, the organ tune has a remarkable, transcendent power, as in "A Lost Chord":

I do not believe I listened one bit to the air which some one in the next room was playing, but it has wound itself around the whole of that scene, it mingles with the perfume of the violets, it floats over the bright blue lake, it melts into every tone of her voice; and never, never shall I hear it without my heart beating quicker, and my eyes filling with tears, and the old dead time rising before me. (41)

However, unlike the speaker of "A Lost Chord," the narrator here can never lose the sound of the chords or the memory it holds for him of his dead wife, although he tries to forget: "But the old magic tune calls up my youth and my lost love, and I am as young and foolish as I was twenty years ago" (41). Ultimately, like the speaker of "A Lost Chord," who decides to stop trying to recreate the chord, the narrator of the story decides to stop trying to replace his memory, choosing "never to try to lay that ghost again" (41). Read in this context, the poem takes on a tone of greater longing, as though the lost chord is the music that the writer of the story can hear; the speaker, like the narrator, can never escape the memory of the past music, and the one glimpse of it brings not enlightenment or freedom from the dissonances of life, but further sadness and complexity. Readers are left wondering "how the matter will be eventually decided," and their inability to "venture to predict" the outcome encourages them to work to overcome this uncertainty.

Arthur Sullivan's setting in many ways echoes the poem's feminist project. His decision to set Procter's poem to music also speaks to the poet's popularity, since Sullivan was one of the premier British composers of the Victorian era. In 1862, his incidental music to The Tempest was performed at the Crystal Palace. This performance granted him instant national fame--he was considered the "unofficial musician laureate" (Dillard 6)--and enabled him to meet such literary giants as Charles Dickens and such musical figures as Pauline Viardot and Gioachino Rossini (Dillard 4). Sullivan had a reputation for composing works either based on or set to literary texts,1 so his decision to musically render "A Lost Chord" is not uncharacteristic. Sullivan's interest in Procter's poetry was not limited to "A Lost Chord"; they met through his friends, the Leymanns, and this acquaintance led him to many of her other poems (130). His arrangements of four of her other poems, namely "Give," "Thou Art Weary," "Will He Come?," and "A Shadow," were well received and "were popular in drawing rooms and concert halls" (130). However, none of these settings achieved the fame of "The Lost Chord," which David Dillard describes as "the most frequently criticized of all his works--and yet undoubtedly one of the most popular songs of Victorian England" (131). Throughout the song, Sullivan carefully conveys harmonically the speaker's unease and desire for gender equality through the search for the chord that she hopes will resolve these issues.

Sullivan's blockbuster was produced by Boosey2 and was premiered at the London Ballad Concerts series. Established in 1867 by John Boosey, these concerts helped promote their songs and helped define the genre. Because of the internationally known artists who would perform these works, drawing-room ballads became a "loftier, artier conception" (Scott, Bourgeois, 141). However, they also became more commercial; singers would be paid a royalty for the pieces they performed and for essentially endorsing a song. Antoinette Sterling, the world-famous American contralto for whom Sullivan wrote "The Lost Chord," received such a royalty for performing it (Scott, Metropolis, 36), and her name appeared on the cover of the sheet music. Such an endorsement would dramatically improve the sales and popularity of a given song, and this marketing strategy provides one explanation for why "The Lost Chord" sold half a million copies between 1877 and 1902 (Scott, Metropolis, 26) and why it was "known and read of [by] all men" ("Arthur Sullivan" 786).

"The Lost Chord" became an instantaneous success after its first performance at a ballad concert, which featured Sterling as the contralto, Sullivan himself on piano, and Sydney Naylor on the organ (Scott, Bourgeois, 143). In an attempt to fully recapture that original concert experience, Boosey took the highly unusual step of offering the vocal and accompaniment parts along with a harmonium part for only two shillings. Boosey also produced editions in many different keys and formats to maximize their profits; the vocal version came in multiple different keys, and the instrumental versions included a piano-forte-only edition as well as a violin and piano version.

Overall, Sullivan remains true to Procter's original text, with two notable exceptions. The first change occurs not in the body of the text, but in the title: "A Lost Chord" became "The Lost Chord." With this change in title comes a subtle change in meaning; in Procter's version, the "A" signified that this chord was merely one of many, an implication furthered by the dual interpretations of the chord itself (namely, a solution to a feminist and a religious quandary). The title in Sullivan's version particularizes and literalizes the chord, as though now that the song has been set to music, we can better imagine and preserve the chord (even though he never produces it musically).3 Sullivan may also have wanted to differentiate his version from earlier settings of the text, such as those by George A. McFarren (1866), S.W. Waley (1867), and Catherine Armstrong (1884), all of which used Procter's original title.4 The other textual difference, apart from punctuation, occurs in the line "I know not what I was playing," which appeared as "I do not know what I was playing" in Procter's poem. This alteration disrupts the anapestic rhythm to make the line easier to sing, and the inverted syntax fits in with the more archaic, hymnic style to which the music alludes.

For the first line and a half, the soprano, or tenor in this recording, sings the same note (an "F," the tonic of the piece) to enact the dejection the words describe (measures 1-13). [] The music also enacts the fingers as they "wander'd idly / Over the noisy keys": the vocal line absent-mindedly retraces its own path. In the next two lines of text, "I know not what I was playing / Or what I was dreaming then," both the vocal part and accompaniment become highly chromatic and proceed by half steps and by incorporating accidentals (notes not in the key of the piece) to accentuate this musical exploration5 (measures 17-21). [] Additionally, the accompaniment modulates to the key of C major for this section to enact the described search before it returns to the key of F for the next verse.6

To further dramatize the search for the solution the chord promises, Sullivan ventured into even more unexpected harmonic territory for the penultimate stanza; when the words speak of seeking the chord, the accompaniment modulates to the key of D minor (the relative minor for F major), and remains there for the rest of the verse 7 (measures 56-64). [] To make the search even more pronounced, during the two measures of piano interlude between the penultimate and final verses, Sullivan incorporates a pedal point on C that makes many of the chords include a seventh, a dissonance that promises resolution, but delays the full cadence until the first chord of the final verse.8

This emphasis on the search and delayed resolution rather than on the chord itself markedly differs from earlier settings of the same text, such as George McFarren's and S. W. Waley's, in which a C major chord represents the transcendent chord and continuously reappears throughout the song instead of remaining lost. This use of a C major chord to represent a transcendent moment might seem surprising, since the key is in fact the most basic and ordinary one (as Robert Browning himself emphasizes in "Abt Vogler"), but it also conveys absolute peace and calm, untroubled by accidentals. The stress here falls on the chord, not its loss.

The vocal part and the accompanying organ also help further a feminist reading. Although the recording included here features a tenor, the song was composed for and made famous by female singers: first Antoinette Sterling (Scott, Metropolis, 36), then Sullivan's mistress, Fanny Ronalds (Jacobs 110). Likewise, although this recording omits the original song's optional harmonium part, the setting's use of a harmonium rather than a church organ alludes to the musical limitations on women.

The poem's other publication context foregrounds a second interpretation: in Legends and Lyrics, the words remain the same, but the absence of a political context augments the poem's contradictory images and dramatizes the speaker's failed attempt to express in words the importance of the lost music. For example, the chord is "the sound of a great Amen" (8), and is therefore associated with prayer and church music, and yet this chord cannot possibly be "the sound of a great Amen." In the hymn tradition, when the congregation sings "Amen," they sing two chords that together form a plagal cadence. By describing a progression that consists of two chords as one chord, the speaker implies that this one sound confounds not only Western music traditions, but also our ability to describe them. The chord also provides her "with a touch of infinite calm" (12) but hardly lasts at all: it "trembled away into silence'" (19). Likewise, the speaker questions whether so irresolute a chord can really resolve anything: it only "quieted," not eliminated, "pain and sorrow" (13), and, although she likens it to "love overcoming strife" (14), the strife still exists. Even the description of the organ belies its traditional Christian significance: the music "came from the soul of the organ" (emphasis mine), which gives an inanimate object an attribute supposedly granted only to people. The most surprising contradiction occurs in a description of heavenly transcendence. This chord appears to be divine, and yet it is "the harmonious echo / From our discordant life" (15-16). This line describes a musical impossibility, since a discordant chord on its own cannot resolve into harmony through its echo. These lines blur the chord's relationship to the divine and the earthly, thus calling into question the consolation of the final claim: "It may be that only in Heaven, / I shall hear that grand Amen" (27-28).

Even the poem's structure defies our expectations of simplicity and its consolations: it is in trimeter but refuses to align itself with any consistent pattern of feet, as it combines dactyls, anapests, iambs, and trochees to emphasize its metrical oddities. Likewise, its rhyme scheme generally follows the ballad form, but occasionally flirts with other patterns, such as abab (stanza four) and abbb (stanza seven). The combination of trimeter with a ballad rhyme scheme would lead one to expect this to conform to the ballad form generally, but the poem never includes the requisite tetrameter lines. This combination of meters and genres echoes the uncertainty of the poem and confounds expectations of sentimental or religious verse as its description of music confounded Western musical traditions.

Sullivan's setting incorporates this religious questioning by combining elements of sacred and secular music to show the chord's earthly connections and by subverting expected harmonic progressions to discount the speaker's claims. The accompaniment invokes divine music by imitating a voluntary, a form of religious music based on suspensions. However, this religious music accompanies the singer's repeated notes from the song's opening that convey the speaker's dejection. These repeated notes also invoke the secular operatic recitative tradition as well as the liturgical chant tradition, and therefore immediately juxtapose the sacred and the secular, the public and the domestic (measures 1-13). [] In fact, even the poem's ambiguous instrumental specification conflates the earthly with the sacred; the harmonium became a popular Victorian drawing room instrument alongside the piano, so we have no way of knowing whether the speaker plays this divine music in a church as part of a musical prayer, or at home as part of a domestic performance.

In the song's final stanza, Sullivan harmonically subverts our expectations to critique the text's declamatory belief that the speaker will hear the chord again in Heaven. Instead of returning to the key of F major as we would expect, the accompaniment temporarily returns to D minor, the key associated with the earlier futile search for the chord, before returning to F major for the final chord of the piece (measures 73-77). [] This musical hesitance to confirm the chord's transcendence further dramatizes the speaker's uncertainty, in spite of her repeated attempts to recreate its sound.

The gender of the singer also helps mediate between the two publication contexts; if a woman sings it, as they did with frequency on the stage and in the home,9 then we are brought closer to the poem's original publication in the English Woman's Journal, where the journal's political leanings encourage its readers to interpret it as a woman pondering her place in a "discordant life" and performing on the domestic organ as the only outlet for her musical worship. Sullivan's decision to compose it for a soprano, and therefore, for women's voices, further supports this reading. However, since Boosey also published the song in the keys of E flat, G, A flat, and A in addition to the original key, F, Sullivan (and the publishers) desired all singers, regardless of vocal range and gender, to perform "The Lost Chord."

If a man performs the song,10 then the scene imaginatively transforms to an actual church, the harmonium to a full organ, and the musician to a professional organist; this connection with the church might de-emphasize the song's questioning of religious transcendence. In fact, the story of the song's composition further casts this song as a more traditionally religious work. Supposedly, Sullivan had spent substantial amounts of time five years previously trying to set Procter's poem, but had abandoned the project (Scott, "Musical Soirée") until one day he composed the entire work while watching over his dying brother, Frederic, as he slept (Dillard 31). The song's central character would therefore become Sullivan himself improvising a new melody before he suddenly finds the chord that consoles him for the impending loss of his brother. This interpretation of the song is certainly more sentimental (and in some ways, canonical). The tensions between these two differing readings based on the singer's gender help delineate the tensions between the two publications of the poem: that of the politically charged Journal and that of the more sentimental, yet religiously questioning Legends and Lyrics.

Works Cited

Armstrong, Isobel. "'A Music of Thine Own': Women's Poetry--an Expressive Tradition?" Victorian Poetry: Poetry, Poetics and Politics. London: Routledge, 1993.

Barger, Judith. Elizabeth Sterling and the Musical Life of Female Organists in Nineteenth Century England. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2007.

Dillard, Philip H.Sir Arthur Sullivan: A Resource Book. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 1996.

Doughan, David.Feminist Periodicals, 1855-1984: An Annotated Critical Bibliography of British, Irish, Commonwealth and International Titles. Brighton: Harvester, 1987.

"Emigrant-Ship Matrons" English Woman's Journal. March 1860. Nineteenth Century Serials Edition. Web. 28 Dec. 2012.

Gregory, Gill.The Life and Work of Adelaide Procter: Poetry, Feminism and Fathers. Brookfield, VT: Ashgate, 1998.

Hoppen, Theodore. "Music." The Mid-Victorian Generation, 1846-1886. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998: 394-402.

Jacobs, Arthur. Arthur Sullivan: A Victorian Musician. 2nd edition. Aldershot: Scholar Press, 1992.

The Oxford and Cambridge Theory of Music: V. I: The Elements of Musical Theory and the Rudiments of Harmony. London: George Gill and Sons, 1887.

The Oxford and Cambridge Theory of Music. V. II: The Essentials of Harmony, The Rudiments of Musical Form, and an Outline of Musical History. London: George Gill and Sons, 1887.

Procter, Adelaide Ann. "A Lost Chord." English Woman's Journal. March 1860. Nineteenth Century Serials Edition. Web. 28 Dec. 2012.

---. "A Lost Chord." Legends and Lyrics: A Book of Verses. Second Vol. 9th ed. London: Bell and Daldy, 1873.

Scott, Derek. The Singing Bourgeois: Songs of the Victorian Drawing Room and Parlour. 2nd ed. Burlington: Ashgate, 2001.

---. Sounds of the Metropolis: The Nineteenth-Century Popular Music Revolution in London, New York, Paris, and Vienna. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2008.

Sullivan, Arthur. "The Lost Chord." "The Lost Chord." London: Boosey & Co, 1877. National Library of Australia. Web. 27 July 2013. < an7686876>

Sullivan, Herbert and Newman Flower. Sir Arthur Sullivan: His Life, Letters, & Diaries. second edition. London: Cassell & Co, 1950.

Temperley, Nicholas. "The Athlone History of Music in Britain, V.5. " The Romantic Age, 1800-1914. London: Athlone Press, 1981.