Music and Mortality #3: COVID-19 Diary + Arthur Sullivan’s Lost Chord


A series of blog posts that combine my COVID-19 diary with music that faces up to the reality of death (in different ways). 

It’s been just short of three weeks since I decided to move my teams to working at home, a few days ahead of the general Stage 3 Lockdown we’re experiencing in Brisbane. I don’t know how you’re finding lockdown but in some ways, it feels like an extended Saturday. I’m at home, the kids are at home, I’m not wearing shoes, there’s a bit of stuff to be done on the computer and around the house, and if you look out the front window you see the odd neighbour out doing their stuff as well. There might be an apocalypse going on, but the suburbs still say sort of quiet.

Possibly for a lot of us, COVID-19 is something we’re experiencing through the news, which is only becoming more bleak. If it was Italy we were looking at in horror three weeks ago, now it’s New York.

What is surprising is how even in less than a month, the news is losing its shock value. The numbers of dead are, surprisingly quickly, getting to be something that you just accept and move on, without quite the cold grip of fear that it used to have even three weeks ago. Is this what it feels like once a war starts: we just accept that people are going to die and get used to it? I don’t know, but it’s disturbing in many ways. But perhaps the alternative – living in everlasting horror of the situation around the world – is unsustainable for our sanity as well.

While there has been the odd commentator in the media wondering whether this will be the end of religion (I’m pretty sure it’s doing just fine in these times, in case you were worried), what I’ve been most interested in this week is political discourse and the way it has caused problems but possibly what it might look like moving forward.

This has struck me with news from two places: America and Tasmania.

With regards to the American situation, it’s concerning. I have friends in America of various political stripes and I’m quite amazed that, despite the devastation that is happening in New York, there are still cries that lockdowns and stoppages are an outrage. There still seems to be an underlying political lens being used by many people: if you’re in favour of a lockdown and government handouts, you’re a liberal Democrat and if you are worried about the economy you’re a capitalist Republican. (I’m sure there’s more nuance to that, but hey, I live on the other side of the world.) All of which is compounded by a President who seems to be in one camp today and then switches to another the next day.

None of which strikes me as particularly heartening when lives are at stake.

So I’ve felt much more comfortable with my own country’s response (and my own state’s health department has been particularly outstanding in terms of communication to the public). While it may not go far enough for some people, it seems that, on the whole, medical advice is being listened to (even though it must be tricky, because the medical community is divided) and it seems also as if we’re making plans to get to the other side of this.

But the Tasmanian story I wanted to share that particularly caught me by surprise was an article on the ABC news about the premier of Tasmania, Peter Gutwein. The poor bloke only became Premier in January and unless he had some sort of crystal ball, I’m guessing he – like myself – was not thinking that three months later we’d all be in this sort of situation.

Whatever his plans for the year, he seems to have risen to the occasion. You can read the article for yourself, but the part that blew my mind was this:

“I think he’s doing a good job in really difficult circumstances,” Labor leader Rebecca White said.

“He’s demonstrated how much he cares for Tasmania and that he’s not afraid to make big decisions to keep our community safe, and we support him 100 per cent with all those difficult decisions because we know it helps to save lives.”

Greens leader Cassy O’Connor agreed.

“Like many Tasmanians, I have been impressed with Peter Gutwein’s capacity to lead at a really difficult time,” she said.

“He’s making extremely difficult decisions, communicating them clearly and he’s being inclusive of us and Labor, so there’s a sense of shared purpose and really working together for the people of Tasmania, which has got to be a positive.”

This is quite remarkable. One of the things that I have deplored about Australian politics for the last decade is this all-or-nothing approach the parties have to each other. All campaigning is based around the idea that “That guy is a dickhead. Everything he says is rubbish. Vote for me instead.” We seem to have a Parliament that just comes together to hurl insults at whatever the other side has done, regardless of any merit it might have.

So to see the leaders of the two other parties in Tasmania both saying that the guy from The Party We Love To Hate is including them in the decision-making process, consulting them and getting them onside, and they think he’s doing a great job – that is nothing less than miraculous in the Australian context. Maybe that kind of cooperativeness can only come about in a crisis, but it would be nice to see it continue.


But enough about politics. Here’s this week’s song about death, in this case “The Lord Chord”.

It’s possible that the song would be nowhere near as memorable to me if it wasn’t for the circumstances under which I heard it, but can’t we say that for all the music that is memorable to us? In April of 2016, my father passed away while we were on a family holiday in London. It was a surreal experience. We were able to finish the trip, but in order to make Dad’s funeral, we had to fly home to Sydney on a Saturday and then travel to Brisbane for his funeral early that week. There was no time to get over jet lag, let alone really process it.

The funeral week passed in a bit of a blur and then I was straight back into work. As anyone who works in the arts in Australia knows, the middle of the year is always the busiest for a marketer because you’re preparing for next year’s season, so it really wasn’t until several months later in September 2016 that I was able to escape with my family for a seaside holiday and finally stopped.

During this holiday, I decided to listen to an album of songs by Harry Secombe, the Welsh belting tenor (mostly only remembered for The Goon Show nowadays and his turn as Mr Bumble on Oliver!). My Mum had a few of his songs on tape when I was a kid, so mostly for nostalgic reasons I started having a listen.

One thing led to another and I stumbled across his rendition of “The Lost Chord” written by Arthur Sullivan (of Gilbert and Sullivan fame). As I said, I had vaguely heard this song in the past but not paid close attention to it until now. But this time around it almost instantly moved me to tears nearly every time I listened to it (and I got quite hooked!). In hindsight, I believe that maybe it was the first time in six months I’d had a proper chance to grieve and this song was tapping into this.

Before you hit play and think, “What is this?”, let me give a quick preamble. It’s a diabolically old-fashioned sort of song. There are plenty of good reasons why nobody has heard of it nowadays. It was based on poem written in 1858 by a woman named Adelaide Anne Procter. The poet describes how she (it’s always a woman in the postcard pictures – see above for an example) was sitting one night at the organ feeling “weary and ill at ease”. As she was playing random tunes, “I struck one chord of music like the sound of a great Amen”.

The poem goes on to describe how this one chord was like the ultimate piece of music. “It quieted pain and sorrow, like love overcoming strife; it seemed the harmonious echo from our discordant life.”

But there’s a sting in the tale – the chord dies away and the poet is never able to find it again. “I have sought, but I seek it vainly, that one lost chord divine.” And so the only hope for the poet is that when she dies, “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.”

The poem obviously had some popularity, but those words were destined to become famous when Arthur Sullivan set it to music in 1877. Tragically, he finally hit upon the tune that worked when his brother Fred was dying. He finished it five days before Fred passed away, which just adds an extra layer of poignancy to the whole thing.

In many respects, it’s a cleverly designed song. It rolls along with mostly the same tune for each verse but throws in unexpected surprises. For instance, when the words speak of the chord “like the sound of a great Amen”, the music moves into an ancient type of harmony used in old church music, giving the line an other-wordly spiritual sound. Also, that harmony is never used again in the song, adding to that feeling of “you can hear it once but never again”. When the singer talks about seeking in vain for the lost chord, the music moves into the minor key, creating a sense of anxiety and loss about the whole thing. But it also sets us up for the return to a majestic major key in the huge final lines about “death’s bright angel”.

It went on to become the biggest-selling song (which is in terms of sheet music, no recordings!) in the 1870s and 1880s. Every major singer worth their salt in the first half of the 20th century had a bash at it. Brass bands still seem to like having it in their repertoire.

But, eventually – and this is the irony of the whole thing – like the majestic chord that it describes, the song started to fade out from public consciousness.

Maybe there are just too many points of disconnect between the 1800s and now. After all, who can still play an organ? After so many world wars and no end of strife in mind, do we really believe – even those of us in the arts – that any piece of music can bring world peace? In today’s less religious age, are sentiments of life after death – or even singing about death at all – going to resonate as much? (And because the song is not particularly Christian as such, it hasn’t been passed on from generation to generation in the way that the great hymns have.)

But this song had a real resonance for the 19th century generation that lived before recorded music. Think about it. Any time you heard a great piece of music performed live, there was a tinged edge to it – the more amazing the performance, the less likely you were to ever hear anything like it again. And with no recordings, you could certainly never enjoy that particular moment again.

So there we have it – “The Lost Chord” a song that is almost lost as well. Almost any singer that I can find that has recorded this song died long ago. And I think it’s that irony – that a song that is about the transitory nature of music – is itself falling victim to the transitory nature of music. Maybe one day, barely anybody will remember it.

I don’t know about you, but I think that one of the reasons I value so much the nostalgia of my childhood – the books, movies and music that I loved when I was younger – is because there is a growing realisation that with everything in life, there will always be the last time that you read that book, the last time that you hear that piece of music, the last time you meet that person. So getting to return to something from the past can give me the illusion that I can stop time.

But it is just an illusion. For everything in life, there is a moment where we will seek and seek vainly to be able to enjoy that thing again. At least in this life. But more on the afterlife another day.

For now, “The Lost Chord”. I’ve got a semi-obsession with listening to covers of this song (contact me if you want to hear more!) but I think I’ll leave with you the version that first caught my attention, by the one and only Harry Secombe.



Music and Mortality #2: COVID-19 Update + Jackson Browne

Jackson Browne Performs Live In Amsterdam

A series of blog posts on music that faces up to the reality of death (in different ways). Plus my latest thoughts on COVID-19.

So another week has gone by, myself and all my work colleagues are working remotely, and we’re all safely at home. I feel already in a week we have entered a new era in the Australian COVID-19 saga. If last week was marked by a general fear and anxiety on everyone’s part (which I was suggesting was part of our collective fear of death), I feel like this week that’s turned into general angst.

We’re safe now. We’re stuck inside, you can’t come near me, and I can’t come near you.  So now we’re just getting irritated. With our situations, with each other, with our politicians. Not everyone, and I wouldn’t want to read my week autobiographically into everyone else’s but, as we sit at the start of a stay-at-home period (not yet a full lockdown in my country) of an indeterminate period, it’s unknown how well we’ll treat each other in coming weeks.

See, we love stories about adverse situations bringing out the best in people. (In fact, I think it’s why everyone has a particular love affair with WWII movies at the moment.) But will we actually see that in ourselves at this point in history? I don’t know, but I’m finding it harder than I thought!

In the meantime, it’s time for another song about death, and this time by singer-songwriter Jackson Browne. I came across this song a few years ago while working through Tom Moon’s 1,000 Recordings to Hear Before You Die.

(Two quick tangents about that book: a) In case you’re wondering, I did get all the way through it over several years and managed to listen to probably 95%+ of the material in there, if it wasn’t super-obscure. b) Is COVID-19 going to put a stop to this “Before You Die” sort of subtitle on books? They suddenly doesn’t seem as amusing any more.)

Anyway, back to Jackson Browne. Probably not a guy I would have come across on my own (he’s more of a Baby Boomer specialty) but his songs have a quiet thoughtfulness that is quite distinctive. But the one that has stuck with me for the last few years, possibly because my own father was critically ill in intensive care when I first heard it, is “For A Dancer”.

It is, quite simply, one of the most poignantly and brilliantly written songs about death. It’s metaphorical enough to appeal to those who like poetry and philosophy, but the meaning is simple enough to be grasped by the ordinary person.

If only the first verse and chorus of the song existed, it would still be amazing. Using the metaphor of dance (it was actually written in tribute to a dancer friend of Browne’s who had died), it contains a number of true-to-life reflections that are hard-hitting in their simplicity and truthfulness:

  • The sudden shock of losing someone else: “You never know what will be coming down”. 
  • The way we lose touch with our close friends, somehow assuming we’ll always have an endless amount of time to catch up with them another time: “You were always dancing in and out of view / I must have thought you’d always be around”
  • The feeling of not knowing what is beyond death: “I don’t know what happens when people die / Can’t seem to grasp it as hard as I try”.
  • Possibly most poignant of all, the loneliness of death: “In the end there is one dance you’ll do alone”

All of these things would be total doozies to contemplate in and of themselves in our day and age. However, after a great violin solo from his collaborator David Lindley, Jackson comes back with the second half of the song, which elevates his musings on death to even greater theological and philosophical heights:

“Keep a fire for the human race
And let your prayers go drifting into space
You never know what will be coming down”

I don’t know that this has ever gone out of fashion – our ability as humans to want to turn to God (or something higher) when we face death and devastation. But there aren’t as many mainstream songs that I can think of that express this so clearly. The sting in the tail is that line about “You never know what will be coming down”. It seems a bit flippant at first, as if Browne is saying “You might as well pray to something. After all, it might do some good.”

But the next lines are the ones that haunt me:

“Perhaps a better world is drawing near
Just as easily, it could all disappear
Along with whatever meaning you might have found”

Maybe this sentiment was more easy to express for someone living in the 1970s – caught in those tumultuous decades after the West had turned had away from traditional organised religion but still had the beliefs and customs lingering in the air. But it resonated with me when I heard it in the 21st century. It’s the crippling language of doubt.

That’s because I went through a period of doubt of my Christian faith for something like five or six years. And if felt exactly like the lines of those songs, and it wasn’t at all pleasant. Some people never quite understand what this feels like. It wasn’t a feeling of: “Oh, I don’t believe all this is true. I’m going to become an atheist.” Instead, it was just a simple feeling of being unsure. Perhaps there is a better world drawing near, but just as easily (depending on how you looked at it), maybe there is nothing there. And if there was nothing there, then I couldn’t find a great deal of meaning to explain the world either.

A world with many beautiful things, but no ultimate meaning. Could you cope with it?

In the end, Jackson and I probably part ways at this point. For me, I had a dawning realisation that God being there or not was not actually determined by how much I felt he was there, and that was the start of the road back.

But for this song, Jackson embraces the uncertainty and encourages his listeners to “Go out and make a joyful sound” – regardless of whether you are able to believe in something higher or not.

However, in the final analysis, he is stunningly honest about what happens if you choose this path. In today’s day and age, we would probably make the being joyful part almost transcendent. In other words, if you can be happy yourself, make others happy, that’s pretty much as sacred as following a religion. “For a Dancer” is far more down-to-earth in its final lines:

“And somewhere between the time
You arrive and the time you go
May lie a reason you were alive
But you’ll never know”

It’s certainly a far cry from today’s mantra of finding your highest purpose. But maybe – as is the point with the music I’m writing about in this series of posts – maybe contemplating death changes our thinking about our highest purpose.

Anyway, before you have a listen to the actual song, I just found out that poor old Jackson Browne has actually tested positive to coronavirus. I do hope he gets better soon.


Music and Mortality #1: My thoughts on COVID-19 and Bach Cantata BWV8


Photo by David Beale on Unsplash

It’s been about three years since I posted on this particular blog, but I’ll be honest, COVID-19 has driven me to it. Plus I now have a bit more time on the weekends.

As many of you may know, I work in marketing for an orchestra. In Australia. And so, in less than two weeks, a group of talented musicians, many of them my friends, went from performing for an audience nearly every weekend to now being stuck at home, victims of a ban on public gatherings that started at anything larger than 500 people in one place and very quickly turned into anything greater than 100.

So here I am at home on a Saturday night – and not facing up to the prospect of going out to a concert tonight. (To be fair, there wasn’t one scheduled for this Saturday – it was next weekend. But you get the idea. I’m going to have to keep the moths off my concert-going clothes.)

But what I wanted to drill right down to today, because I can be as relentless about oversharing as I can about pursuing cold shivers – is the fear of death.

This week was exhausting. In fact, I checked Twitter on Friday afternoon and the word “Exhausted” was trending. (Sorry I didn’t screenshot that. You’ll just have to take my word for it.)

There are many reasons for this exhausted feeling (unexpected work, sudden change, trying to work out how to video conference!), but my theory is that the biggest reason for this collective collapse-in-a-heap – even if we’re not saying it out loud – is that my nation has taken a collective adrenaline shot of the fear of death.  Sure, we’re all talking about locking down and working from home to “flatten the curve”. But I think when we read the words “flatten the curve”, we’re not just talking about the idea of slowing down the rate at which we get sick. I think for many of us, what we’re hoping is that we won’t get sick. And we’re hoping that, because many of us aren’t ready to die.

Or maybe it’s just me? Whatever, I’ll ‘fess up.

In my head, up to a couple of weeks ago, my money was on me lasting maybe to my late 60s at least. The idea that this year or the next could be my last – no, that was not featuring in my thinking and planning. And these last two weeks have exposed how deeply I fear that changing. And I say that even as a Christian, someone who feels confident that there is life beyond this one.

There was an interesting blog post by Stephen McAlpine recently, back a few weeks ago when the biggest thing going on in Australia was the lack of toilet paper. I’m truncating his full thoughts, but he made these comments:

There’s a thin veneer of confidence in the Western world that is completely untested by any major traumatic event that sweeps all before it … It is a confidence that has held no weight and has no knowledge of anything that could break it. Yet. …

It’s like those videos of people in turbulence-rocked planes, with oxygen masks and luggage bouncing around, crying and screaming out that they don’t want to die.  And then the plane lands and they don’t die. And they have their holiday in Fiji and their massages and their cocktails on the beach.

But somewhere tucked in the back of their mind is the fact that actually they don’t want to die, but they will someday have to. It just wasn’t today.  And it just wasn’t that way.

This idea that we walk around with a fear of death tucked under a thin veneer of confidence was striking to me and has played on my mind.

But rather than get too philosophical about that (I’ll leave that up to Stephen and others!), it got me thinking about several bits of music I’ve come across over the years that deal with death. Maybe I’m morbid, but if fear of our own mortality is what we’re facing, music can sometimes be a more subtle way of looking it in the eye.

So I was thinking I could do a series of three or four blog posts sharing different music that I’ve come across that has a strikingly open view of death. But the one that I wanted to start with was one I stumbled across several years ago – the opening chorus of Bach’s Cantata BWV8.

A quick bit of background if you’re not aware of Bach’s cantatas. The great composer J.S. Bach used to compose music for the Lutheran church and wrote about 250 short works (about 20-25 minutes long) for orchestra, choir and soloists called cantatas. They would have been performed in the Sunday service and would have been tied to a particular Bible reading or theme for that particular Sunday.

The BWV8 cantata was composed for the 16th Sunday after Trinity on the calendar and it’s the day where, as far as I can tell, the congregation contemplated their mortality.

So this chorus “Liebster Gott, wenn werd ich sterben?” literally translates as “Dearest God, when will my death be?” I cannot think of any church I’ve ever been to in my 41 years of church going that ever got as in-your-face about death as Bach does in this opening line of the chorus.

The full lyrics in English are:

Dearest God, when will my death be?
Now my days run ever on,
And the heirs of the old Adam,
In whose number I, too, am,
Have this for their legacy,
That they for a little while,
Poor and wretched, earth inhabit
And then are with earth united.

Here we go – in one chorus, we’re inhabiting the earth poor and wretched for a little bit and then get united with the earth. The next few sections of the cantata expand on this and explicitly and deliberately  work through the fears of death and offer the comfort of Jesus. (You can go read the full lyrics here to see how it plays out.)

But just have a listen to this opening chorus, because even despite the somberness of the sentiment in the words, Bach spins it out with some of the most delicate beauty ever created in music. There are long pauses between each line of singing, with a glorious duet between two oboe d’amores (an older version of our current oboe). Underpinning all that, if you listen closely, you can hear a very insistent rhythm, a slow ticking in the low strings, and a fast furious ticking on the flute. (Almost like one is the minute hand and the other is the second hand on a clock.)

I can’t prove this and maybe a Bach scholar can help me out, but even if it wasn’t done on purpose, the idea that this chorus literally ticks like the clock of our life, while discussing the idea that that clock will stop one day, is just musically spectacular and utterly moving. Somehow, miraculously, Bach has moved the fear of today’s age front and centre and said, “Let’s talk about it.”


Review: The Light Between Oceans

The Light Between Oceans
The Light Between Oceans by M.L. Stedman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I did something rather stupid about halfway through the book. Knowing there was a movie of The Light Between Oceans, I had a look at Metascore, just to see what reviewers were making of the movie. And while I didn’t get any direct plot spoilers, I did see a quote from one reviewer that said, and I quote: ‘Just when the audience is gearing up for a powerfully tragic resolution of the kind that Thomas Hardy might have written, the movie veers off into Nicholas Sparks territory instead.’

Which all of a sudden ruined the book for me. Because I now spent the remainder of the story with the growing suspicion that this was going to have a Mushy Ending of some sorts that would take the edge off the story.

The result, of course, without giving away any plot points, is that the ending does land somewhere between the bleakly tragic and the tearfully mushy, but I’m not sure if that is how it is meant to feel or whether I ruined it for myself by checking out the cinema review and thus biased myself towards the ending.

Anyway, to talk about what it is – the story set-up is melodramatic and over-the-top in many respects, but works perfectly because of the attention to detail that Stedman gives us. A lighthouse keeper and his wife live on a remote island where they only see other people every three months. This is in the 1920s, so Tom is still suffering from the trauma of the war and Isabel is struggling with her several miscarriages. (In many ways, both of these tragedies are connected by the idea of the death of children before their time.)

One day, a boat arrives on the shore, bearing a dead man and a living baby. Rather than report the incident, they decide to keep the baby. There are various reasons for why they make this particular choice, all of which we readers can immediately sympathise with but – of course – this decision is to be the turning point that causes all the angst moving forward.

It’s a gripping story, and I got sucked right in, but I will confess I found the first half of the story more compelling. Here we find the back story for Tom and Isabel, the lighthouse couple, and also witness their moral struggle with whether they did the right thing, and the increasing seeds of guilt and untruth that creep in.

The second half of the book is a lot more plot-driven, due to the direction that the story takes. While this certainly goes by quickly, taking the focus off the two main characters like that seemed to lose a bit of the magic somehow.

But, look, these are small quibbles. It’s a great Australian tragedy. If it had been made 70 years ago as a black-and-white movie, it would have been considered one of the great weepies of all time. Bring your tissues if you’re going to read this one.

View all my reviews

Next Blogging Projects: The Future of Classical Music + My Favourite Childhood Author

So just wanted to give all my readers a heads-up that now that I’ve finished blogging through the Mahler Symphonies, I have a couple of new projects on the go which you may be interested in.

However, because they are somewhat niche interests, I’m going to be writing about them in two completely separate blogs, both a little more targeted in who they’re designed to reach. Both of these have just started up and running, so jump over if either of them sound interesting:


It’s no secret to those who regularly read my pages here that I’m obsessed with the question of what the future will hold for the classical music world. Now that I’ve been mulling over the problem for a decade or so, ideas and theories are starting to come to me that I wanted to record down in print. (But which will hopefully provoke discussion as well!)

So, to that end, I have enterered the world of those people who set up their own website and you can find me over at:

For the first few months, I’ll be going through some ideas I have about why people like music and what that might point to in the future of classical music. I’d also like to use it as a site to share news and views about what’s going on around the world in terms of classical music audience-building.

2) The Great Grand Robin Jarvis (Re)Read

But then, on a completely different note, I’m also co-blogging on possibly my most crazily ambitious feat yet – to blog chapter-by-chapter through the works of my favourite childhood author, Robin Jarvis. Unfortunately, Jarvis has been somewhat obscure in Australia (though it’s possible he’s a bit obscure everywhere!), but I’ve always had a soft-spot for his very British tales of small heroes, dark magic, incredible bravery and noble sacrifice.

If that sounds remotely appealing, we’re inviting Robin Jarvis fans and lovers of YA fiction who want to try something new to join in the fun over at:

If neither of those sound interesting, I do apologise! I may well do the odd blog post here and there on this blog on topics that don’t fit into either a “future of classical music” or “Robin Jarvis” category, but this blog will probably go somewhat quiet over the next little while. Thanks again for those who joined me in the Mahler tour!

A Guy Named George – Part 5: George Grove and Classical Music Audience-Building

Photo sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

The last in a series of posts about George Grove, the legendary classical music audience builder.

So in my last post about George Grove, I talked about my afternoon in the Royal College of Music and how George Grove’s Crystal Palace concerts turned out to be a canny mixture of education and crowd-pleasing fun (leaning towards the latter).

There is sometimes an (often unspoken) assumption in modern classical music circles that the secret to getting a big audience is to playing the music at a very high standard of excellence.  But after those few hours spent in the Royal College, I’m going to be more emphatic: I don’t think we ever grew audiences that way.

Excellence Organisations vs Audience Organisations

I now have a new theory. I believe there are two types of classical music organisations – those that are focused around Excellence and those that are focused around Audiences. Surely that’s the same thing, you might be thinking? Not necessarily.

Nowadays there are so many recordings floating around of any classical piece. (Who can even count how many complete sets of Beethoven and Mahler symphonies are in existence?) This is because classical music nerds, the connoisseurs, are so intimately familiar with the details of these works that they are always looking out for that interpretation or performance that is just that little bit better than any they have ever heard. They’re looking for the most perfect rendition, the one that gets an A+ while all the others get an A.

And this is what the classical music industry has thrived on for the last century. The existence of the connoisseurs. So a typical modern classical music company is built around the concept of drawing in the best conductors, the best musicians, the best ensembles, because they are performing for the connoisseurs, that audience who is knowledgeable enough to know the difference between the A performance and the A+ performance.

But for the person starting out with a vague interest in classical music – they have no such level of knowledge. This is why there were so many cheap and nasty CD labels selling classical CDs for $5 in bargain bins at supermarkets back in the 80s and 90s. To the average person, Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony or the 1812 Overture is the same, regardless of who plays it.

So Excellence Organisations play to connoisseurs, strive for perfection, and the emphasis is geared towards performing a broad repertoire with prestigious musicians. However, by comparison, George Grove’s Crystal Palace series was an Audience Organisation. Perhaps by necessity of being run for a profit, it needed to be one, rather than any great desire by Grove. But necessity is the mother of invention, as they say. And so Grove’s Audience Organisation was built around the audience: It had to be entertaining to reach a broad crowd. It had to include not just serious music, but also music the masses would respond to as well. It attempted to make the audience more sophisticated, definitely, but it always recognised that it had to get them in the door first before any of that could happen.

So what happened? Why did the Crystal Palace concerts die out after Grove died? Why don’t we see concerts like this any more? Why is nearly every classical music organisation today trying to be an Excellence Organisation with virtually no one trying to be an Audience Organisation?

My theory – and I’m now going out on a limb and completely speculating here – is that Grove, quite by accident, had stumbled on the magic formula for growing classical music audiences. If the concerts were just to please the crowds, it would have been like André Rieu – great fun for those who go, but not a bridge to the great classics. If it had been all serious and musicological, it would have been like a modern-day film appreciation class: great for the small number of people who like to educate themselves about culture, but not meaning a lot to the hordes thronging the multiplex. But George did both – he was an entertainer and an enthusiastic teacher and he taught the lay audiences of Britain to love classical music.

Like MasterChef for Classical Music

The closest thing to which I would compare George’s achievement would actually be MasterChef. Everyone who watches the show knows it’s manipulative, cheesy and aiming at the lowest common denominator in terms of entertainment. Its goal is to have you glued to the TV set every night for an hour. And yet, slowly but surely, as this cheesy little reality TV show has infiltrated the hearts and minds of Australia (and I’m sure other countries that have the show), what has happened? It has raised a generation of foodies. And that has a flow-on effect for the restaurant industry, for fine-dining experiences. There are more upmarket food experiences to be had in my city of Sydney than ever before. So a show that is built entirely around pleasing its audience is actually doing a service for food culture in Australia, more so than any fine dining guides or food reviewers were ever able to achieve before.

A Victim of His Own Success?

So why do we not see anything quite like the Crystal Palace series today? My theory is that Grove’s experiment was, in the end, a victim of its own success. By the end of the 19th century, as Grove’s life came to an end (he died in 1900), there were new Audience Organisations having a crack at the lay person. (The most famous of which were the Proms, which are still running to this day.) People were so keen to nerd up on classical music, that Grove was able to successfully put together and publish the Grove Dictionary of Music. (This is still in print but nowadays it’s a large multi-volume work that lurks in Conservatorium libraries. What has possibly been missed today is that the dictionary was intended, not for classical music students, but for the lay person to gain an understanding of classical music.)

Portrait of George Grove by Charles Furse that hangs in the foyer of the Royal College of Music in London.

Also, rather than head off to Europe to learn to play classical music, there were enough talented young musicians that a good music school was warranted in England. And so the Royal College of Music was established and has continued in operation ever since.

In short, classical music was such an in thing to do in London, that really nobody had to worry about trying to persuade people it was entertaining. The peer pressure did that work. Everyone was reading up on it, studying it, and going to as many concerts as they could. The ecosystem was well and truly set up. So in the early 20th century, you can see the extraordinary explosion of public orchestras setting up in London. The London Symphony, the London Philharmonic, the New Philharmonia, etc. If an orchestra could get its A+ conductors and musicians lined up, there was an audience willing to part with their money to hear them.

In short, classical music was now so much part of the popular culture, that it was carried along by its own momentum.

Hereditary Culture

Also – and this would require a whole separate blog post – culture up until the 1960s was hereditary. You aimed to carry on the traditions and culture of your parents and grandparents, thus why many churches, to this day, sing the same old hymns from the 19th century and why many classical music audiences over the age of 70 can remember going to concerts with their parents and listening to classical music their entire lives. Why would you listen to anything else? It’s the best that culture can offer!

But in today’s day and age, we don’t think like that. At least for the last 40 years, the goal as soon as we hit our teenage years was to discover music that sounded as obnoxiously differently from our parents’ music as humanly possible. But side by side with this generational shift amongst the masses, something else had happened in classical  music circles – we possibly lost sight of how to make people love classical music.

Everybody has been competing in the Excellence space for so long, no one is really sure how to do the Audience-building thing any more. And the reality is, it’s much harder to do now than it ever was. It will look different for every generation, because audiences are always looking for something new and exciting. By the time Grove died, classical music was so popular and the Crystal Palace wasn’t the new and exciting venue that it used to be, that his series of concerts just died out. Unlike the Excellence Organisations, which just need to be excellence, Audience Organisations need to be constantly evolving because the audience is evolving.

To build an audience today for classical music – and it’s something that is desperately needed – will require a whole new set of different tricks. I suspect it might need to involve a larger role for film music, which is the most common orchestral music still listened to by laypeople. But no one is entirely sure.

But more pressing even than the mix of music is this question: where are our George Groves today? Where are people who can speak the ordinary language of laypeople, and yet draw them into a greater knowledge of the classical music art form? Where are people so enthusiastic for classical music, that their enthusiasm infects a whole city? (And in this day and age of the internet, one person’s enthusiasm could spread across the globe.)

I’d like to be optimistic, but as the classical music industry faces an uncertain future, I’m not sure whether we’ll be able to return to the Audience focus fast enough to stem the tide of the ageing audience. But there are glimmers of hope. For instance, this young orchestra, the Melbourne Philharmonia Project, popped up in an article I was reading earlier this year. They talk about wanting to create “an orchestral experience which was aimed at not the 7 per cent that listen to classic music but the other 93 per cent”. Now that right there is the language of an Audience Organisation. I’d like to think that if enough groups like this appear, following in the footsteps of George Grove (even if we unfortunately just think of him as the guy with the multi-volume music dictionary named after him), maybe collectively we all might be able to make a difference.

After all, if George Grove could change my life and open up the world of classical music to me, why couldn’t the same happen to plenty of other people out there if we gave it a try?

The Mahler Symphonies Guided Tour – Symphony No. 2 “Resurrection”: Movement V

Picture courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Where We Have Been:

Movement I was a devastating picture of death.

Movement II was a nostalgic dance from the past.

Movement III was a quirky and humorous movement.

Movement IV was the moving song “Primeval Light”, sung by a soul desperate to get to God.

And now comes the most extraordinary finale I’ve ever heard. Here we go …

(0:00) The fifth movement begins (without a pause) with an almighty crash as the orchestral scream from the end of the third movement returns. Gradually, the orchestra dies away. From here on, like a circling procession, we will hear various themes that return again and again throughout the movement.

(1:47) The first major theme we hear is played by the trumpets. We’ll call this Last Trumpet, because it’s meant to sound like the trumpets on the final day. These trumpets are be placed offstage around the concert hall, and will (in an ideal performance) echo from the four corners of the room in true surround sound fashion. Some phenomenal-sounding harp stuff here as well.

(3:20) The next theme to enter is the hymn tune Aufersteh’n itself. (Which you might remember was the hymn that Mahler heard at a funeral that inspired this finale.) It’s in a simple version that is played first by the winds, and then by the brass, and accompanied by plucking strings. It is followed by a more majestic sounding tune on the brass. The horns start to take over, as the plucking accompaniment switches to the flutes. Like an ancient creaking machine, this tune winds down.

(5:45) Then a new theme begins with two-note sighs on the woodwinds, with agitated string vibrations underneath. For reasons that will be clear when the choir enters, this is the “O Believe” Theme. It sounds agitated, panicked. It builds in intensity and then dies out.

(7:08) The hymn tune returns. This time, it is played by the brass, sounding like a large choir. They begin quietly, again with plucking underneath. But they build in power and volume, until with a loud drum roll and a mighty cymbal crash, a majestic new theme enters. (8:44) With fluttering flutes, soaring trumpets and repeated cymbal crashes, this new theme soars to the sky. To me, it’s like the Star Wars theme, only 10 times better. (I know, controversial.) For a brief instant, Mahler gives us a glimpse of life beyond death. However, this music dies away again. (Mahler often does this – he’ll give a foreshadowing of what is to come before he gets there.)

(10:46) Out of the silence, comes an astonishing sound – a massive (and I mean massive) couple of drumrolls usher in the next section. The drum rolls, Mahler said, are meant to represent the shaking of the earth, as the graves of the dead are burst asunder.

(11:53) Following this, the orchestra begins a huge majestic march. You may not be able to pick it, but this is another variation on the hymn tune. It picks up, bravely going where the heroic march from the first movement could not. As the march grows in intensity, large bells (like church bells almost) start to toll.

(13:24) However, as with all things in life, in Mahler symphonies, no plan succeeds easily without a struggle. At the height of the march, minor key discordant music starts to enter, and the march struggles as it is being swamped by this new music, especially by obnoxious three-note taunts which come from the other instruments. Despite this, the march bravely struggles on, almost reaching its climax . . .

(14:42) . . . but no! A massive CRASH on the tam-tam blows the whole orchestra to smithereens. Like animals running scared, all the instruments just play frightened versions of the march as everything dies into nothingness.

(15:06) Again darkness. Out of this new darkness, we hear the “O Believe” theme again, on the brass. The strings enter with a new theme, a worried string melody. But, even worse, offstage, we hear the sound of a demonic brass ensemble. Sounding like a circus band gone crazy, the offstage brass gets louder and louder . . .

(16:43) . . . and then onstage, we reach the final struggle. A furious brass theme enters, battling higher and higher, getting more and more worked up. It climaxes, again in another tam-tam crash, and another dissolving wave of sound from the orchestra.

(17:33) But this time . . . this time . . . from the darkness that follows, we hear a change in the air. We realise that this time, death has been defeated. The strings gently play a lyrical melody, while the orchestra gradually calms down. Now, there is an air of expectation in the air. What will happen next?

(19:02) Again, we hear the brass calling from the four corners of the room, sounding like the last trumpet. Following this, a lone flute circles around, sounding like a bird. Mahler’s sister described this as “the Bird of Death, hovering above the graves” uttering a last drawn-out cry.

And then, in one of the most heart-stoppingly beautiful moments in all music, the choir enters.

They sing the first two verses of the Aufersteh’n hymn that Mahler heard at von Bülow’s funeral. (But with new music by Mahler.) At the end of each verse, you will hear the female soloist break away from the main choir and soar above it. (In the first verse, it is the soprano, in the second verse, the alto.) After each verse, there is an orchestral interlude, painting a picture of a heavenly life after death.

(21:53) Aufersteh’n, ja aufersteh’n wirst du,
Mein Staub, nach kurzer Ruh’!
Unsterblich Leben!
wird, der dich rief, dir geben!

Rise again, yes, rise again,
Will you My dust,
After a brief rest!
Immortal life! Immortal life
Will He who called you, give you.

(26:07) Wieder aufzublüh’n wirst du gesät!
Der Herr der Ernte geht
und sammelt Garben
uns ein, die starben!

To bloom again were you sown!
The Lord of the harvest goes
And gathers in, like sheaves,
Us together, who died.

(30:12) After this, the alto and then the soprano enter with the “O Believe” tune, and this time, the words are actually sung. Interestingly, these words are not from the original hymn. Mahler wrote them himself and, in them, he answers the questions that he asked in the first movement. Death is not the end. You were not born in vain. Your suffering was not for nothing.

O glaube, mein Herz, o glaube:
Es geht dir nichts verloren!
Dein ist, ja dein, was du gesehnt!
Dein, was du geliebt, was du gestritten!

O glaube: Du wardst nicht umsonst geboren!
Hast nicht umsonst gelebt, gelitten!

O believe, my heart, O believe:
Nothing to you is lost!
Yours is, yes yours, is what you desired
Yours, what you have loved
What you have fought for!

O believe,
You were not born for nothing!
Have not for nothing, lived, suffered!

(31:42) Then, in almost a hushed whisper, the choir enters again, intoning the mysteries of life. We are born, and we die. But what dies, rises again! With a loud proclamation, the male singers tell us to “Prepare to live!”

Was entstanden ist, das muß vergehen!
Was vergangen, auferstehen!
Hör auf zu beben!
Bereite dich zu leben!

What was created
Must perish,
What perished, rise again!
Cease from trembling!
Prepare yourself to live!

(33:33) Then, as the movement heads into its final minutes, the two soloists sing an ecstatic duet, rejoicing that death has been conquered. After this, the chorus starts to sing about how they shall soar upwards to the light. The music builds to soaring new heights. Mahler was never comfortable with the concept of a last judgment, and so carefully selected the words so that all people who have died rise again and go to God. And it’s almost impossible not to catch Mahler’s vision while you’re listening to his music.

O Schmerz! Du Alldurchdringer!
Dir bin ich entrungen!
O Tod! Du Allbezwinger!
Nun bist du bezwungen!
Mit Flügeln, die ich mir errungen,
In heißem Liebesstreben,
Werd’ ich entschweben
Zum Licht, zu dem kein Aug’ gedrungen!

Mit Flügeln, die ich mir errungen,
Werd’ ich entschweben
Zum Licht, zu dem kein Aug’ gedrungen!
Sterben werd’ ich, um zu leben!

O Pain, You piercer of all things,
From you, I have been wrested!
O Death, You conqueror of all things,
Now, are you conquered!
With wings which I have won for myself,
In love’s fierce striving,
I shall soar upwards
To the light which no eye has penetrated!

With wings which I have won for myself,
In love’s fierce striving,
I shall soar upwards
To the light which no eye has penetrated!
Die shall I in order to live.

(35:53) And then . . . in what is, without doubt, one of the greatest moments in all musical history . . . when you think things couldn’t possibly get any more spectacular . . . the choir thunders out the hymn tune at full volume, accompanied by the orchestra, and now also an organ. We can’t see it with our eyes, but in our ears and minds, the sky is full of the resurrected dead, shining as they fly to God.

Aufersteh’n, ja aufersteh’n wirst du,
mein Herz, in einem Nu!
Was du geschlagen,
zu Gott wird es dich tragen!

Rise again, yes, rise again,
Will you, my heart, in an instant!
That for which you suffered,
To God shall it carry you!

(Translation sourced from Wikipedia.)

(37:30) The symphony finishes with a rousing orchestral close, and in the final moments of the piece, two tam-tams (a high and a low one) crash out waves of majestic sound, over and over again, as one of the greatest symphonies of all time comes to a close.


Well, I don’t know about you, but that always feels like the Mount Everest of music to me. Maybe there’s something out there that is more jaw-dropping and inspiring, but I haven’t come across it yet.

Thus ends the Mahler 2, and also the Mahler Symphonies Guided Tour. I do hope you’ve enjoyed the last year or so, journeying through the Mahler symphonies. If there’s an orchestra near where you live playing some Mahler live, I highly recommend getting along to hear it. Spectacular as it might sound on a good hi-fi or set of headphones, no recording can capture the intensity of a Mahler symphony heard live.

After this, I’ll be coming back with one last blog post about George Grove to complete my thoughts on that fascinating Victorian gentleman. And then I have a couple of new blog projects launching shortly which you may be interested in as well. Thanks again!

The Mahler Symphonies Guided Tour – Symphony No. 2 “Resurrection”: Movement IV

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Where We’ve Been: Movement I – a vast and terrifying picture of death. Movement II – a nostalgic dance. Movement III – a slinky swirl of clarinets, looking at the chaos of life.

And now a moment of stillness and beauty …

In this fourth movement, Mahler returns again to the folksongs of Des Knaben Wunderhorn, this time with a song called Urlicht. It is a very simple song, sung by an alto, where she sings about wanting to get to Heaven. She asks, in a fairly simple naive way, that God will give her a little light to show her the way.

“Urlicht” – German Text

O Röschen rot!
Der Mensch liegt in größter Not!
Der Mensch liegt in größter Pein!
Je lieber möcht ich im Himmel sein.
Da kam ich auf einen breiten Weg:
Da kam ein Engelein und wollt’ mich abweisen.
Ach nein! Ich ließ mich nicht abweisen!
Ich bin von Gott und will wieder zu Gott!
Der liebe Gott wird mir ein Lichtchen geben,
Wird leuchten mir bis in das ewig selig Leben!

“Primeval Light” – English Translation
O little red rose!
Man lies in greatest need!
Man lies in greatest pain!
How I would rather be in heaven.
There came I upon a broad path
when came a little angel and wanted to turn me away.
Ah no! I would not let myself be turned away!
I am from God and shall return to God!
The loving God will grant me a little light,
Which will light me into that eternal blissful life!

(Translation from Wikipedia.)

I’ve always loved the brass moment early in the movement after the opening line. It reminds me of slow military brass laments. I could imagine this being used on Memorial Day or a similar type of remembrance ceremonies. Whatever the setting, the music is utterly moving.

In a way, this song is attempting to be an answer to the death and devastation that we have heard in the first movement. However, it is pretty obvious that this song is far too light to be the ending of this symphony, and doesn’t really balance things out. As if to make that point, the fifth movement blasts in, fury raging from the opening seconds. But we’ll come back to that in our next post!

The Mahler Symphonies Guided Tour – Symphony No. 2 “Resurrection”: Movement III

The third movement of the Mahler 2 is based on a song about a guy … who delivers sermons to fish. (Painting by José Benlliure y Gil, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.)

Where We’ve Been: Movement I – the devastating portrait of death. Movement II – a nostalgic look into the past with a gentle dance. And now for a bit of quirky humour.

The last three movements are to be played one after the other without a break, so apologies that splitting this over three blog posts somewhat breaks that momentum!

This third movement is the scherzo of the symphony. A scherzo (Italian for “joke”) is generally a faster movement in the middle of a symphony that lets the composer write something that is fast, but not necessarily as big and grand as the first and last movements. As you’ve heard in his other symphonies, if you’ve been following along, Mahler liked to use the third movement to express irony or satire and this one is a perfect example of that.

At the time when this symphony was composed, and in the years before it, Mahler was a great fan of a collection of German folk poems called Des Knaben Wunderhorn (The Boy’s Magic Horn). Two of these poems make an appearance in one form or another in this Second Symphony. The first one to appear is a song called “Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt” (“St Anthony of Padua Preaches to the Fish”).

The original poem is a rather cynical little tale about St Anthony who gives up preaching to his congregation because they don’t listen to him. So he goes down to the river and preaches to the fish. The fish are highly interested in his sermon and gather around to listen, but as soon as it’s over, they go back to being their same old selves and don’t pay any attention to what they heard . . . Mahler set this poem to music shortly before this symphony was completed for voice and orchestra and then decided that he liked his tune so much, he’d use it again in this symphony.

(0:00) With a opening “ba-bum” from the timpanis – which shocks a live audience every time, coming after the quiet ending of Movement II – the opening theme (the Anthony song) begins. This has some very elaborate instrument choices, with all sorts of strange sounds coming from all over the place. (For instance, listen out for the rute – a bundle of sticks which they beat against the side of the drums to make a clicking sound.)

Most of the opening tune is dominated by the woodwinds, playing all sorts of slinky, slidy melodies. In the original song, this represents the movements of the scaly, slithery fish, but in this symphony, it serves as a larger metaphor . . . In this movement, Mahler is telling us that life is often chaotic and endless.

(4:09) However, as we’ve seen, even in the middle of chaos, there is beauty. After a few minutes, the song theme gets interrupted by a loud brass section, and soon we hear a wonderful interlude: (5:10) over a billowing harp accompaniment, a trumpet quartet sings out a gorgeous melody. To me, it really is one of the most beautiful moments in the symphony.

(6:39) Alas, however, it ends, and the music starts getting more discordant, as if it’s lost its bearings and doesn’t know where to go. The slinky song tune starts up again.

(8:54) Again, a few minutes later, a loud brass section interrupts and for a minute, we think we might be lucky enough to hear the trumpet quartet again. But no . . . it’s far worse.

(9:14) The orchestra lets out a scream. The chaos of life is too much, and we hear it. The scream almost collapses the orchestral sound in on itself and the music wanders into a strange ethereal sound world on the other side of it. However, this new sound that comes from the orchestra after the scream has a hint of the fifth movement, and it gives us a glimpse of eternity – of a life beyond this one on earth.

(10:51) But then the slinky St Anthony song returns again, and the scherzo closes as it began.


If you liked that movement and you’re open to trying things strange and new, the Italian composer Luciana Berio used it in the third movement of a work of his called the Sinfonia, which features an orchestra and singers who don’t actually sing (they often speak, shout or whisper instead) all thrown in a strange post-modern mix. Have a listen on YouTube if you’re interested. It’s a trippy experience!

The Mahler Symphonies Guided Tour – Symphony No. 2 “Resurrection”: Movement II

Mahler turns aside from the devastation of the opening for … a dance?

Where We’ve Been

Movement I was a massive and terrifying portrait of death.

And now …

Mahler asked that there be a five minute pause between the first and second movement of this symphony.  (Not every conductor will do this, however, especially if the concert is being recorded for broadcast.)  The main reason for this pause is quite simply that this movement sounds nothing like the one before it.  It’s not just the fact that this is the slow movement of the symphony. It’s almost as if we’ve started listening to another symphony entirely. . . at first glance.  What is happening in this movement is that Mahler, after confronting us with death in the first movement, is now taking a nostalgic look back at the past, and reminding us of the “good old days”.  The way he does this is to bring in the music of a ländler (an old Austrian dance).

The movement is in five sections, which are pretty easy to distinguish from one another:

(0:00) Section 1 is the first appearance of the dance.  Just like a glorious waltz from a 30s movie, it sweeps in very delicately with lots of sliding strings and Viennese charm.

(2:04) Section 2 is a rather agitated-sounding theme that completely contrasts with the laid-back charm of the dance.

(3:50) Section 3 is a more elaborate return of the dance.

(5:58) Section 4 is the agitated theme again, but this time it enters in loudly, casting a dark shadow over everything.

(8:27) Section 5, however, brings us out the other side.  The dance returns, but this time the strings play pizzicato (plucked), making it the most delicate moment in the whole symphony.  Very gently, the movement winds to a close, ending with three plucks like the first movement.  But where those plucks were ominous, these plucks are charming and graceful.