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.