Friday 23 August 2013

Some Thoughts on The Lost Chord

What have Jimmy Durante, Arthur Sullivan. Phil Minton, The Moody Blues and Michael Giacchino, composer of the soundtrack of Lost, have in common? Each in their own way was preoccupied with the search for The Lost Chord. Or, in the latter case, the Lost chord.  

‘I’m the Guy Who Found the Lost Chord’ by Jimmy Durante nearly made me choke on my Welsh Rarebit when I heard it as a lad on the radio. Since then, I’ve developed an immunity to comedy records and Welsh Rarebit, yet it cracked me up all over again when I tracked it recently on a copy of The Very Best of Jimmy Durante (1964, MGM C 985). And, after obsessive replays, the song still has the ability to make me laugh out loud. 

Was there ever a more accurate evocation of the euphoria of making music? This, with a barbed hint that such euphoria is tinged with madness?

Mental health is a running theme of the song, established from the very first line. “Sitting at my piano the other day, my mind was ill at ease”. Aside: “They were coming to take it away that afternoon…” And, later, “They said Mozart was mad…” (I’m pretty sure they didn’t). “They said Puccini was mad…” (ditto). “They said Louis was mad”. Voices off: “Who’s Louis?” “He was my uncle, and he was mad.”   

And what is the lost chord that so enraptured Schnozzle? I might be wrong, but to my ears it sounds like an F minor with a diminished fifth. It would hardly give Messiaen sleepless nights, but it was sufficiently outre to blow Durante’s mind. 

At the time of recording, in the fifties, USA was so straight-laced  that an F minor with a diminished 5th could only be the product of an outsider, a nonconformist, or a lunatic, or all three combined: a jazzman! Durante was not a jazzman: he was the the last incandescent bloom of the vaudeville tradition. His delight at the freaky chord he’s stumbled across is clearly an aberration, a symptom of his unhinged mental state. The brassy Hollywood razzamatazz that accompanies ‘ITGWFTLC’ represents the norm from which he’s deviated.

Interestingly, his professed style of “improvising symphonies” anticipates modern, techno-enhanced methods of music-making. As he describes it, “My right hand was playing Mozart’s ‘Minuet’, and at the same time, my left hand was playing ‘Have A Banana’ from Carmen, and at the same time my mouth was whistling the sextet from Luicini [?], and at the same time, what do you think my foot was doing? While keeping time it was cracking walnuts. See, I had to eat too.”

If it’s not giving away trade secrets, I myself used the GarageBand app of Facebook to make a new creation by splicing Sandy Denny’s ‘Late November’ together with James Booker’s ‘Junco Partner’. I feel as happy with the result as Jimmy Durante did with his Lost Chord. There’s still work to do. The first bars of the Denny song need to be re-harmonised, as there’s just a faint chance they might be recognised, which will get me in trouble with the publishers. 

The song that Durante was referencing was, of course, Arthur Sullian’s ‘The Lost Chord’, which is at once sentimental, pious and bonkers, like the best Victoriana. 

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

Among the significant performances of ‘The Lost Chord’ – and it was the song used for demonstration purposes when the phonograph was unveiled at a press conference in London in 1888, and Enrico Caruso sang it at a benefit concert for the families of the victims of the Titanic in 1912 – the most unexpected is undoubtedly the interpretation recorded by singer Phil Minton and pianist Veryan Weston on Ways (ITM Records, ITM 0020, 1987).

It emerges from a stream of improvisation, hence the title ‘A Wayfarers Prelude to the Lost Chord’, with Weston frenetic and grandiose on keys, and Minton burping, gargling and squalling in the unique Mintonesque style. This leads to a relatively straight account of Sullivan’s ‘The Lost Chord’, which, paradoxically, celebrates improvisation in a formal way, and follows strict musical conventions. Minton can be as stentorian and declamatory as the best (this side comes out in his Mike Westbrook collaborations), and this version of 'Lost Chord' gives a practical demonstration of the interconnectedness of improvisation and insanity. 

I might mention that the Moody Blues had an album called In Search of the Lost Chord. I would expand on this, but I can't presently be bothered to dust off my copy. Suffice to say, this was the record that inspired my friend Alan Parry’s one-liner,  “That chord wasn’t lost, it was mislaid on purpose.”

The chief thing mislaid in the fifth series of Lost (we're catching up with it on Lovefilm Instant) is the plot, although the appeal of the TV fantasy always did rely on a certain suspension of disbelief, critical faculty and mature taste. The scariest thing is the spectacle of so many talented people strung out on coffee, as the suspicion that they’re-making-it-up-as-they're-going-along crystallises into they-don’t know-what-they’re-doing. It transpires that the corporate TV monster, insatiable in its appetite for a hit formula, is far more rapacious and lethal than any lame fog monster on an unchartered, deserted island (albeit, one with a population as large as Manhattan). 

The only person who did know what he was doing, I would suggest, was Michael Giacchino, who composed the soundtrack of Lost, and was chiefly responsible for ensuring that the chief emotional state of the audience was fear, rather than confusion. 

The Lost chord here comes up over the screen title ‘Lost’ which always comes up about seven minutes in, after the bite-sized summary – “Recently, in Lost…” (“We’re going to have to move the island!”, "Son-of-a-bitch!") – and after several scenes of preposterous action with bewildering flashbacks and puzzling flash-forwards. And it’s not so much a chord as a drone that swells to an ominous crescendo, splintering into metallic harmonics. In this culture, as conformist as fifties USA, the only place you can get away with discord is in the soundtrack of a thriller, and Michael Giacchino seizes the opportunity with gusto, aware that uneasy listening is more fulfilling than easy listening.   


  1. Choked by Durante and welsh rarebit? I was always terrified by the Tale of the Three Billy Goats Gruff. The problem arose from peculiar pronunciation locally of the word "Trough" like troh. I had imagined the goats had been threaten by an over-talkative receptacle for animal feed, rather than a grotesque hairy humanoid. Quite how the trough would have eaten the Billy Goats was the subject of wild infantile speculation; but once I realised that "troh" was not "trough" but troll, the whole horror subsided; the notion of an inanimate object talking back to its client group far more horrific than threats from over-blown bogey-men. "Lost" was like that after about the third season, and I was just anxious for someone to come back from a journey through a mysterious tunnel or dense jungle with burger and fries to reveal that on the other side was a diner and two lane highway - just as long as it wasn't Hurley compromising his diet - the plot twists such that it seemed like red herrings with no real conclusion. In fact I only bothered referencing the ending as result of your piece: and yes it was the disappointment I'd rather come to expect, just like an elaborate delay whilst the public administrators process the unexpected volume of applicants (benefits, post offices, departure lounge or whatever) when they should have issued numbered tickets instead. Oh the bright light!

  2. You have to be young at heart to get the most of Lost, but I wonder if even my younger self, weaned on comic books, might not also have found it exasperating. Even by the standards of fantasy it's stridently apolitical yet so USA, earnest (genuine humour would puncture the absurd plot instantly) and complacently sure that the audience will swallow any old bollocks. I wander off for whole episodes to play the piano, and when I get back and ask what's happening, my partner is apt to say, "It's very complicated".

    Nice to hear from you, Heynonny.

  3. Simple cautionary tale, take Qantas from Sydney to LA, no lost passengers since 1951: Dustin Hoffman's character in "Rain Man" was right then, and in spite of exploding engines from Singapore, still remains true so far as I know. The bright light, now there's a truth....might be time to reappraise, thanks!


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