There’s a tradition that stretches back into the vaguest depths of antiquity, part myth, part quasi-scientific theory, which postulates a secret musical chord, a divine harmony that expresses in some way the very essence of creation. I’ve spent a little time looking into the origins of this curious yet somehow compelling belief, and it’s hard to pin down, but it seems to go at least as far back as Pythagoras, who is supposed to have stated “there is geometry in the humming of the strings, there is music in the spacing of the spheres”. You still hear the expression “music of the spheres” sometimes. It’s an echo of the ancient cosmological model that envisioned the seven visible celestial bodies, all of which obviously revolved around the Earth, as being suspended in space on concentric, crystalline, transparent spheres, made of an ethereal fifth element – literally, the “quintessence”. This concept of seven nested spheres is also the origin of the phrase “seventh heaven”, a reference to the highest, and presumably most exalted, layer of the cosmos.
Within this conception of the universe, the music of the spheres might be thought of as the essential vibrating frequency of space itself (a notion that eerily presaged the discovery of the omnipresent radio noise identified by modern astronomers as the “cosmic background radiation”, thought to be the faint residue of the Big Bang). If I follow correctly, Pythagoras associated the seven note musical scale with the orbits of the seven celestial bodies, and thought that the relative spacing of the spheres and the spacing of the notes on the scale shared some fundamental relationship; he also saw math and music as intertwined, since in Pythagorean philosophy “all is number”, and Pythagoras understood that the pitch of a note emitted by a vibrating string is inversely proportional to its length, a relationship that can be expressed numerically. If math and music were more or less the same thing, and the ratios between notes and the relative distances of the spheres were likewise two sides of the same coin, it followed that the cosmos was best understood as a giant harmonic instrument, and further that the spacing of the planets, like the ratios of the musical scale, were aspects of a unifying grand design, embodying a musical and mathematical key that could unlock the mysteries of creation. Pythagoras may even have believed that each of the spheres literally emitted its own distinct frequency of audible hum, which combined with the others to form one perfect note.
Admittedly, this all gets pretty dense and mystical, but it seems that the Lost Chord is a variant of the Music of the Spheres, the perfect harmonious combination of notes that expresses in musical terms the mathematical perfection of the relative proportions of the spheres overhead, and thereby reveals a vital clue to the origin and purpose of all things.
I’ve read that one can find iterations of this mythology spread across cultures as disparate as the Celts and the ancient Hebrews. It seems to have been crystallized in the modern consciousness by a Victorian era composition that was almost universally adored in its time, The Lost Chord, written by Sir Arthur Sullivan, who drew on an 1858 poem by Adelaide Proctor, a popular figure of Victorian literature all but forgotten today. The inspiration to adapt Proctor’s poem to music came to Sullivan, most poignantly, at his brother’s death bed. The words:
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.
More recently, the idea surfaced again in the ponderous Art Rock of the Moody Blues, whose album In Search of the Lost Chord littered many a drug-soaked college dorm room back in the late Sixties, and was alluded to again, with perhaps somewhat greater artistry, by Leonard Cohen in 1984, with his beautiful Hallelujah:
Now I’ve heard there was a secret chord
That David played, and it pleased the Lord
But you don’t really care for music, do ya?
It goes like this, the fourth, the fifth
The minor fall, the major lift
The baffled king composing “Hallelujah”
It would seem that Pete Townshend was drawing consciously on the same tradition when he composed Pure and Easy, but not so; it’s supposed to have been something that came over him spontaneously, apparently out of the ether (with an assist, perhaps, from the Eastern mysticism in which he was then immersing himself), while the Who were on tour following the release of Tommy. This is from the relevant Wikipedia entry:
“I’ve seen moments in Who gigs where the vibrations were becoming so pure that I thought the whole world was just going to stop, the whole thing was just becoming so unified.” He believed that the vibrations could become so pure that the audience would “dance themselves into oblivion”. Their souls would leave their bodies and they would be in a type of heaven; a permanent state of ecstasy. The only reason this didn’t happen at Who gigs was because there was a knowledge in the listener’s mind that the show would end and everyone would wake up and go to work the next morning.
This was the germ of an idea for an incredibly ambitious follow-on to Tommy, which Townshend dubbed Lifehouse. As the idea developed, Pete, apparently at this point growing more visionary by the hour, imagined a future dystopia that in many ways anticipated by decades the internet and immersive virtual reality, with the masses laying about in a sort of decadent torpor, from which only a rediscovery of the emotional power of music could rescue them:
“The essence of the story-line was a kind a futuristic scene…It’s a fantasy set at a time when rock ’n’ roll didn’t exist. The world was completely collapsing and the only experience that anybody ever had was through test tubes. In a way they lived as if they were in television programmes. Everything was programmed. The enemies were people who gave us entertainment intravenously, and the heroes were savages who’d kept rock ‘n’ roll as a primitive force and had gone to live with it in the woods. The story was about these two sides coming together and having a brief battle.”
Under those circumstances, a very old guru figure emerges and says ‘I remember rock music. It was absolutely amazing—it really did something to people.’ He spoke of a kind of nirvana people reached through listening to this type of music. The old man decides that he’s going to try to set it up so that the effect can be experienced eternally. Everybody would be snapped out of their programmed environment through this rock and roll-induced liberated selflessness. The Lifehouse was where the music was played, and where the young people would collect to discover rock music as a powerful catalyst — a religion as it were.
Trippy stuff, right? But look where it ends up:
There once was a note, pure and easy
playing so free like a breath rippling by
The note is eternal, I hear it, it sees me
forever we blend, as forever we die
In Townshend’s ultimate version of the story, whether he thought of it that way or not, the Lifehouse would be refuge where the people gathered around their saviour to rediscover the Lost Chord. Nothing less than that.
By all accounts Pete drove himself all the way ’round the bend trying to realize an ever-expanding vision that ultimately included setting up shop at London’s Young Vic theatre to film an extended sort of communal rave up, at which something conceptually identical to the Lost Chord – for real – might actually be attained on film. “Then I began to feel, well, why just simulate it?” he said later. “Why not try and make it happen?”. In what sounds like a descent into utter madness, Townshend developed all sorts of oddball schemes to create what amounted to an enormous work of performance art combined with a genuine mass transcendental experience, and wound up not in Nirvana, but in the throes of a nervous breakdown. It might have ended there, but scattered amidst the wreckage were the greatest songs of his career, among them Baba O’Reilly, Won’t Get Fooled Again, Behind Blue Eyes, and Song is Over, all of which emerged finally on the prosaically named Who’s Next, surely one of the greatest albums of the past sixty years. Missing in action, strangely, was the centerpiece, Pure and Easy, except in the form of a few strains which appear as a mournful coda as Song is Over closes out the album.
While a recording by the Who emerged eventually, the one to hear, attached above, appeared in 1972 on Pete’s solo album Who Came First. There’s a certain philosophical grandeur to the song, as there is to the seductive idea that there might actually be a hidden design discernible in the physical workings of the cosmos, waiting to be revealed in a perfect sonic frequency that’s always been there, eternal, maybe not merely metaphorical but perfectly real and audible, if only we’d make an effort to listen; but we don’t, preferring to focus the energies of our civilization on perfecting new ways to kill and die, perhaps, Pete suggests, for no better reason than we’re otherwise incurious, lack empathy, and feel chronically bored, most of all by each other’s lives. As the song concludes on the repeated refrain of once was a note – listen, we’re left not just with a sense of the ecstasy of finally hearing it, but of the awful sadness of knowing that nobody else hears it too.