The Lost Chord

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Victorian postcard LostChord sm.jpg
Victorian postcard

"The Lost Chord" is a song composed by Arthur Sullivan in 1877 at the bedside of his brother Fred during Fred's last illness. The manuscript is dated 13 January 1877; Fred Sullivan died five days later. The lyric was written as a poem by Adelaide Anne Procter called "A Lost Chord", published in 1858 in The English Woman's Journal.

Arthur Sullivan English composer of the Gilbert & Sullivan duo

Sir Arthur Seymour Sullivan MVO was an English composer. He is best known for 14 operatic collaborations with the dramatist W. S. Gilbert, including H.M.S. Pinafore, The Pirates of Penzance and The Mikado. His works include 24 operas, 11 major orchestral works, ten choral works and oratorios, two ballets, incidental music to several plays, and numerous church pieces, songs, and piano and chamber pieces. His hymns and songs include "Onward, Christian Soldiers" and "The Lost Chord".

Fred Sullivan British actor

Frederic Sullivan was an English actor and singer. He is best remembered as the creator of the role of the Learned Judge in Gilbert and Sullivan's Trial by Jury, providing a model for the comic roles in the later Savoy Operas composed by his brother Arthur Sullivan.

Adelaide Anne Procter English poet and songwriter

Adelaide Anne Procter was an English poet and philanthropist. She worked prominently on behalf of unemployed women and the homeless, and was actively involved with feminist groups and journals. Procter never married. She became unhealthy, possibly due to her charity work, and died of tuberculosis at the age of 38.


The song was immediately successful [1] and became particularly associated with American contralto Antoinette Sterling, with Sullivan's close friend and mistress Fanny Ronalds, and with British contralto Clara Butt. Sullivan was proud of the song and later noted: "I have composed much music since then, but have never written a second Lost Chord." [2]

A contralto is a type of classical female singing voice whose vocal range is the lowest female voice type.

Antoinette Sterling American singer

Antoinette Sterling was an Anglo-American vocalist.

Fanny Ronalds American-Anglo singer and socialite

Mary Frances "Fanny" Ronalds was an American socialite and amateur singer who is best known for her long affair with the composer Arthur Sullivan in London in the last decades of the nineteenth century and for her musical salons.

Many singers have recorded the song, including Enrico Caruso, who sang it at the Metropolitan Opera House on 29 April 1912 at a benefit concert for families of victims of the Titanic disaster. [3] The piece has endured as one of Sullivan's best-known songs, and the setting is still performed today. [4]

Enrico Caruso Italian opera singer 1873-1921

Enrico Caruso was an Italian operatic tenor. He sang to great acclaim at the major opera houses of Europe and the Americas, appearing in a wide variety of roles from the Italian and French repertoires that ranged from the lyric to the dramatic. Being one of the first major singing talents to be commercially recorded, Caruso made approximately 260 commercially released recordings from 1902 to 1920, which made him an international popular entertainment star. All of these recordings, which span most of his stage career, remain available today on CDs and as downloads and digital streams.

RMS <i>Titanic</i> British transatlantic passenger liner, launched and foundered in 1912

RMS Titanic was a British passenger liner that sank in the North Atlantic Ocean in 1912 after the ship struck an iceberg during her maiden voyage from Southampton to New York City. Of the estimated 2,224 passengers and crew aboard, more than 1,500 died, making it one of modern history's deadliest peacetime commercial marine disasters. RMS Titanic was the largest ship afloat at the time she entered service and was the second of three Olympic-class ocean liners operated by the White Star Line. She was built by the Harland and Wolff shipyard in Belfast. Thomas Andrews, chief naval architect of the shipyard at the time, died in the disaster.


The composer's brother, Fred Sullivan Fred Sullivan.jpg
The composer's brother, Fred Sullivan

In 1877, Arthur Sullivan was already Britain's foremost composer, having produced such critically praised pieces as his Irish Symphony , his Overture di Ballo , many hymns and songs, such as "Onward, Christian Soldiers", and the popular short operas Cox and Box and Trial by Jury . Adelaide Anne Procter was an extremely popular poet in Britain, second in fame only to Alfred Lord Tennyson. [4] On the early published sheet music for the song, Procter's name is written in larger letters than Sullivan's. [5] Sullivan's father's death had inspired him to write his Overture In C (In Memoriam) over a dozen years earlier. [6]

Overture di Ballo

The Overture di Ballo is a concert overture by Arthur Sullivan. Its first performance was in August 1870 at the Birmingham Triennial Festival, conducted by the composer. It predates all his work with W. S. Gilbert, and is his most frequently played concert work for orchestra.

Onward, Christian Soldiers 19th-century English hymn

"Onward, Christian Soldiers" is a 19th-century English hymn. The words were written by Sabine Baring-Gould in 1865, and the music was composed by Arthur Sullivan in 1871. Sullivan named the tune "St Gertrude," after the wife of his friend Ernest Clay Ker Seymer, at whose country home he composed the tune. The Salvation Army adopted the hymn as its favoured processional. The piece became Sullivan's most popular hymn. The hymn's theme is taken from references in the New Testament to the Christian being a soldier for Christ, for example II Timothy 2:3 (KJV): "Thou therefore endure hardness, as a good soldier of Jesus Christ."

<i>Cox and Box</i> opera

Cox and Box;or, The Long-Lost Brothers, is a one-act comic opera with a libretto by F. C. Burnand and music by Arthur Sullivan, based on the 1847 farce Box and Cox by John Maddison Morton. It was Sullivan's first successful comic opera. The story concerns a landlord who lets a room to two lodgers, one who works at night and one who works during the day. When one of them has the day off, they meet each other in the room and tempers flare. Sullivan wrote this piece five years before his first opera with W. S. Gilbert, Thespis.

The composer's brother, Fred Sullivan, was an actor who appeared mostly in operettas and comic operas. The playwright F. C. Burnand wrote of Fred: "As he was the most absurd person, so was he the very kindliest. The brothers were devoted to each other, but Arthur went up, and poor little Fred went under." [7] Fred played roles in several of his brother's operas: Cox and Box, Thespis , The Contrabandista and Trial by Jury. He fell ill in 1876 and died in January 1877. [8]

Operetta opera genre

Operetta is a genre of light opera, light in terms both of music and subject matter.

Comic opera opera genre

Comic opera is a sung dramatic work of a light or comic nature, usually with a happy ending and often including spoken dialogue.

F. C. Burnand British comic writer and dramatist

Sir Francis Cowley Burnand, usually known as F. C. Burnand, was an English comic writer and prolific playwright, best known today as the librettist of Arthur Sullivan's opera Cox and Box.

During Fred's final illness, Arthur visited his brother frequently at his home on King's Road in Fulham, London. The composer had tried to set Procter's poem to music five years previously but had not been satisfied by the effort. [9] As he had been inspired by his grief at the death of their father, he was again inspired to compose by his brother's decline. At Fred's bedside, he sketched out the music to The Lost Chord, and the manuscript is dated 13 January 1877, five days before Fred's death. [10] [2]

Kings Road major street stretching through Chelsea and Fulham in west London, England

King's Road or Kings Road, is a major street stretching through Chelsea and Fulham, both in west London. It is associated with 1960s style and with fashion figures such as Mary Quant and Vivienne Westwood. Sir Oswald Mosley's Blackshirt movement had a barracks on the street in the 1930s.

Although not written for sale, the song became the biggest commercial success of any British or American song of the 1870s and 1880s. The American contralto Antoinette Sterling premiered the piece on 31 January 1877 at a Boosey concert, [11] and she became one of its leading proponents, [9] as did Sullivan's close friend and sometime mistress, Fanny Ronalds, [4] who often sang it at society functions. [10] Dame Clara Butt recorded the song several times, and many famous singers recorded it, including Enrico Caruso in 1912. [3] [5] A copy of the music was buried with Ronalds, who bequeathed the manuscript to Butt in 1914. Butt's husband, baritone Kennerley Rumford, gave the manuscript to the Worshipful Company of Musicians in 1950. [12]

Musicologist Derek B. Scott offers this analysis of the composition:

Sullivan's setting is structurally sophisticated in its treatment of Procter's verses, and offers a contrast to... simple strophic setting.... This demonstrates the variety of forms to be found in drawing-room ballads before there were moves toward greater homogeneity in the 1880s.... For the most part, the song steers clear of the predictable.... There are some delightful surprises, such as the sudden coloring of the harmony with the old church Mixolydian mode as the singer recounts the striking of the mysterious chord. Sullivan shows a thorough understanding of the possibilities of the piano, ranging widely across its compass and making powerful dynamic and textural contrasts. He also does a fine job of imitating an organ style in the introduction. Sullivan's compositional skill where words are concerned is evident in the way he treats the quatrains of Procter's poem... creating a subtle musical structure that avoids an obviously sectional character, despite the poem's hymn-like form. [9]

1888 recording for Edison

In 1888, Thomas Edison sent his "Perfected" Phonograph to Mr. George Gouraud in London, England, and on August 14, 1888, Gouraud introduced the phonograph to London in a press conference, including the playing of a piano and cornet recording of Sullivan's "The Lost Chord," one of the first recordings of music ever made. [13]

A series of parties followed, introducing the phonograph to members of society at the so-called "Little Menlo" in London. Sullivan was invited to one of these on October 5, 1888. After dinner, he recorded a speech to be sent to Thomas Edison, saying, in part:

I can only say that I am astonished and somewhat terrified at the result of this evening's experiments: astonished at the wonderful power you have developed, and terrified at the thought that so much hideous and bad music may be put on record forever. But all the same I think it is the most wonderful thing that I have ever experienced, and I congratulate you with all my heart on this wonderful discovery. [13]

These recordings were discovered in the Edison Library in New Jersey in the 1950s. [13]


The opening bars of "The Lost Chord"; facsimile of Sullivan's manuscript Lost Chord Opening from Arthur Sullivan by H. Saxe Wyndham, With a Chapter by Ernest Ford, London, George Bell and Sons, 1903.png
The opening bars of "The Lost Chord"; facsimile of Sullivan's manuscript
The closing bars, with Sullivan's signature and the date "13 Jan. 1877" Lost Chord closing bars from Arthur Sullivan by H. Saxe Wyndham, With a Chapter by Ernest Ford, London, George Bell and Sons, 1903.png
The closing bars, with Sullivan's signature and the date "13 Jan. 1877"

Seated one day at the organ,
I was weary and ill at ease,
And my fingers wandered idly
Over the noisy keys.

I know not what I was playing,
Or what I was dreaming then;
But I struck one chord of music,
Like the sound of a great Amen.

It flooded the crimson twilight,
Like the close of an angel's psalm,
And it lay on my fevered spirit
With a touch of infinite calm.

It quieted pain and sorrow,
Like love overcoming strife;
It seemed the harmonious echo
From our discordant life.

It linked all perplexèd meanings
Into one perfect peace,
And trembled away into silence
As if it were loth to cease.

I have sought, but I seek it vainly,
That one lost chord divine,
Which came from the soul of the organ,
And entered into mine.

It may be that death's bright angel
Will speak in that chord again,
It may be that only in Heav'n
I shall hear that grand Amen.

Cultural influence

In film and television

There have been at least six films titled The Lost Chord, as well as one titled The Trail of the Lost Chord. [14] In the 1999 film Topsy-Turvy , a scene depicts Fanny Ronalds (played by Eleanor David) facetiously introducing it as "a new composition" at an 1884 party at her house; she then sings it with Sullivan (Allan Corduner) at the piano and Walter Simmonds (Matthew Mills) at the harmonium. [5]

Song cover for "That Lost Barber Shop Chord" ThatLostBarbershopChord.jpg
Song cover for "That Lost Barber Shop Chord"

The Strangers TV series had an episode called "The Lost Chord." [15]


Jimmy Durante recorded a humorous song called "I'm the Guy Who Found the Lost Chord", which he also sings in the 1947 film This Time for Keeps . [16] George and Ira Gershwin wrote a song called "That Lost Barber Shop Chord", which was included in their 1926 revue Americana. [17] The Moody Blues produced an album called In Search of the Lost Chord in 1968. According to keyboardist Mike Pinder, the title was inspired by the Durante song. [18]

Literature and other

The novel Bad Wisdom by Bill Drummond and Mark Manning concerns their trip to the North Pole with an icon of Elvis to search for the Lost Chord. [19] Edith Wharton's novel Ethan Frome contains references to the song. In Isaac Asimov's Black Widowers story "The Quiet Place" ( Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine , March 1988), the traditional "Guest" of the Black Widowers hums this tune all through a dinner. Caryl Brahms wrote a 1975 book called Gilbert and Sullivan: Lost Chords and Discords. [20]

An organization called The Lost Chord describes itself as "a collaborative effort to nurture young talent from underprivileged communities and to foster a commitment to music and arts education accessibility in the New England community." [21]


  1. Jacobs, p. 2
  2. 1 2 "The Lost Chord", The Gilbert and Sullivan Archive, accessed 13 August 2014
  3. 1 2 1912 Caruso recording,, 2005, accessed 28 August 2014
  4. 1 2 3 "The Lost Chord, song for voice & piano" [ permanent dead link ], All Music Guide,, 2008
  5. 1 2 3 Buckley, Jack. "In Search of The Lost Chord". MusicWeb International, accessed 22 June 2014
  6. "Norwich Music Festival", The Observer, 4 November 1866, p. 6
  7. Quoted, in Ayer, p. 408
  8. Stone, David. Fred Sullivan Archived 2006-09-06 at the Wayback Machine , Who Was Who in the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company, 21 July 2009, accessed 21 October 2015
  9. 1 2 3 Scott, Derek B. "The Musical Soirée: Rational Amusement in the Home", The Victorian Web, 2004, accessed 30 September 2009
  10. 1 2 Ainger, pp. 128–29.
  11. "London Ballad Concerts", The Graphic , 3 February 1877, issue 375
  12. Mackie, David. Arthur Sullivan and The Royal Society of Musicians, The Royal Society of Musicians of Great Britain, 2006, p.143 ISBN   0-9509481-3-6
  13. 1 2 3 Historic Sullivan Recordings, The Gilbert and Sullivan Archive, accessed 13 August 2014
  14. The Internet Movie Database listing of films called The Lost Chord
  15. Information about the TV episode called "The Lost Chord"
  16. Durante, Jimmy. "I'm the Guy Who Found the Lost Chord", NME magazine, IPC Media Entertainment Network, retrieved 31 December 2012
  17. Jablonski, Edward. "Gershwin: With a New Critical Discography", Da Capo Press, 1988
  18. Moody Blues documentary, 2013
  19. Drummond Bill and Mark Manning. Bad Wisdom, Penguin (1996)
  20. Brahms, Caryl. Gilbert and Sullivan: Lost Chords and Discords, Boston: Little, Brown and Company (1975)
  21. Official website

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