Mysterious Chords

NY Times ran this piece a few days ago.

NYT, Hugh Morris, ‘Everyone Wants to Hear’ This One Chord in a Christmas Carol, subtitled “A moment in ‘O Come, All Ye Faithful’ is so popular, it’s printed on T-shirts. But it’s also symbolic, and important to music history.”

The article refers to a particular moment in a particular setting of that famous Christmas carol.

Of all the music heard around Christmas, few passages rival the awe and mystery of one chord, known as the “Word of the Father” chord.


In British choral circles, this moment is referred to simply as “The Chord.” It comes halfway through the final verse of the popular Christmas carol “O Come, All Ye Faithful” (or “Adeste Fideles”), in a mid-20th century arrangement by David Willcocks, an original editor of the widely used “Carols for Choirs” series and a former director of music at King’s College, Cambridge. Willcocks, following a rising figure full of anticipation, places an explosive, half-diminished seventh chord under the text “Word,” resolving it elaborately over the next few measures.

With a link to it: this link to listen to it.

I can’t hear it. The chorus comes in at that point, at 3:36, and I can’t hear the chord underneath. I appreciate that I can see the score, and could try to play it on my keyboard.


Yet there many mysterious chords.

There are those in Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in C Sharp Minor, YouTube link at top, which I learned to play as a teenager, after only very basic piano instructions, playing it very slowly so I could savor all those chord changes. Especially those in the final minute.

And years later, when I took a couple music history courses in college at UCLA, the instructor pointed out three or four moments in the finale of Mahler’s fourth symphony, and otherwise cheerful movement, when the orchestra comes to a pause to play a very quiet, mysterious chord, for five seconds, before another pause and the cheerful music resumes.

There are plenty of mysterious chords everywhere. I also learned how to slowly play Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, first moment, to savor all those chord changes, as they mysteriously changed.

I suppose a music scholar who understood terms like “diminished seventh” and so many others could analyze all these pieces, or even anticipate the progression of chord changes. Not knowing that terminology, I’m happy enough to sit back and enjoy the music intuitively. Though I wouldn’t mind knowing how it’s done. How to do it, if one wanted.

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