Tony Haynes, composer/creative director of the Grand Union Orchestra, tells the inside story of his music for the orchestra, its musicians and colourful history.

81: The Covid19th Chord

There’s a great sentimental Victorian ballad called The Lost Chord, by Sir Arthur Sullivan of G & S Savoy Operas fame. Sadly these days, few people seem to have heard of it: if you don’t know it, or need a reminder, there’s a wonderful version below by John McCormack, the legendary Irish tenor. The song has often been parodied, and I was musing on it during the Grand Union Orchestra Summer School back in July, when it all came back to me:

           Sitting one day at the keyboard, weary of this disease

          My fingers wandered idly through unfamiliar keys

         However strange the changes, the harmony sounded flawed

        Then suddenly I stumbled on the CoVID-19th chord!

What, I wondered, might the CoVID-19th chord (as in eg ‘C7th’) sound like? So with the aid of the students I set out to construct it.

Creating the CoVID-19th Chord

With a little musical licence, it wasn’t very difficult to begin with. Clearly C had to be the root, and C0 is the conventional shorthand for C diminished 5th, ie C with two minor thirds above. VI I interpreted as the 6th degree of the scale (ie A), and D literally as the note D (as it happens, the 9th of the scale). Putting them together you get the CoVID chord:


In itself, that’s not very remarkable – a pretty standard jazz harmony (especially with the C omitted), although playing it in the right hand and trying different bass notes against gives some interesting chords (variant strains, perhaps!).

But what about the 19th? This needs a little more imagination and judgment. It’s not just a question of extending the chord upwards, following standard (or academic) modern jazz practice, by a succession of thirds. You have also have the option of altering them chromatically, by a semitone either way, so that no note is repeated in any octave:                                   CoVID-19th-chord-for-blog-2

I believe my solution is the only possible one, and it results in a complex 10-note chord:


We tried this out at the Summer School, but with such a diverse selection of instruments, it wasn’t possible to get an evenly balanced version of the chord.  However, it was nonetheless quite impressive, and this is how the CoVID-19th sounded when we ‘premiered’ it at the end of course concert:

But don’t think of this as just a flippant exercise, a jeu d’esprit. It’s a reminder of the Company’s commitment to nurturing serious young musicians; and it highlights the role of harmony, probably the most neglected these days of the three basic elements of all music, alongside melody and rhythm.  Another metaphor here for our times?

As I write this, the Grand Union Orchestra is about to present its first large-scale show for nearly two years. Perhaps releasing our new chord into the universe will help banish the malignant forces that have undermined music-making – and so much of our lives – for far too long.


Finally, here – recorded 100 years ago in the wake of a previous devastating pandemic – is the original The Lost Chord, sung by  John McCormack, who virtually personifies the art of the classic Irish tenor:

An artist’s impression of the making of the CoVID-19th Chord – by Tony Coombs


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