A secret chord


During one of my visits to the Research Institute for Mathematics (MFO) in Oberwolfach I stumbled upon a Steinway grand piano hidden in a remote room in the basement. I couldn’t resist the urge to hammer on this masterpiece of musical hardware (those who know the itch in the fingertips and the magical attraction of the ebonies and the ivories will certainly understand me.) I played a lot that day, forsaking perhaps some of the talks. One of the pieces happened to be Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah (unfortunately, the quality of the sound in the video is even worse than the quality of my playing.) This song was written in 1984 and (surprisingly!) had little initial success; with the years it has become hugely popular with some 300 interpretations (with different lyrics) existing today.

I don’t know what exactly was that secret chord that Cohen alludes to, but to my uneducated taste and ear this song, this little gem, is a stroke of genius. Out of the existing lyrics, my own interpretation is based on these three stanzas:

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 you?
It goes like this, the fourth, the fifth
The minor fall, the major lift
The baffled king composing Hallelujah


Your faith was strong but you needed proof
You saw her bathing on the roof
Her beauty and the moonlight overthrew you
She tied you to a kitchen chair
She broke your throne, and she cut your hair
And from your lips she drew the Hallelujah


I did my best, it wasn’t much
I couldn’t feel, so I tried to touch
I’ve told the truth, I didn’t come to fool you
And even though it all went wrong
I’ll stand before the lord of song
With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah


King David is indeed claimed to be the author of many of the biblical psalms (this authorship is, of course, an anecdote rather than a real historical fact), so it is quite easy to imagine the gray-bearded king improvising on his harp to please himself, his girlfriends, and, occasionally, his Lord. By the way, the biblical instrument referred to as נבל, was, most likely, closer to a lyre rather than to a modern harp — it was hand-held and had fewer strings. The fourth, the fifth, the minor fall and the major lift probably refer to the fourth (F major) and the fifth (G major) degrees of the C major scale in which the song is written, and to the downward motion to the A minor chord followed by an upward motion to F major. Continuing with King David’s theme, the allusion to Bathsheba whom he saw bathing on the roof is quite transparent (this story is about an abuse of power: David liked the lady and arranged her husband, Uriah the Hittite — one of David’s generals, a particularly heroic military mission from which the poor fellow returned KIA. Nothing is new under the sun.) Cutting the hero’s hair is an allusion to another biblical story — that of Samson and Delilah (here the lady took advantage of Samson’s infatuation to discover the source of his extraordinary strength which, surprise! was in his shoulder-long hair. Delilah cuts her lover’s curls in his sleep and delivers the powerless hero to the enemy (the Philistines), just to receive her 30 shekels of silver (no, that’s from a different story) — anyway, the price of betrayal according to the fair market valuation at that time. I find that combining Bathsheba and Delilah in a single character is a brilliant move — the woman that David so desired pays him with treason for his own breach of fiduciary obligations.

Another woman that I inexplicably associate with the two former ladies is the famed witch from Endor (אֵ֥שֶׁת בַּֽעֲלַת־אֹ֖וב בְּעֵ֥ין דֹּֽור) that King Saul, the predecessor of David, came to consult. The king desperately needed to hear the word of god (he had an important battle on the following day and wanted a whisper on whom to bet.) After unsuccessfully trying the regular communications channels, he rode incognito uncountable miles to the home of, perhaps, the last witch in his kingdom (as Saul himself had previously declared sorcerers and necromancers of all kinds personae non gratae in Israel — their culture was not loyal enough.) The story, of course, took a terrible turn for Saul whose army was defeated in the battle next day, the king himself fell casualty (but, at least, had a State funeral), and after a brief game of thrones, King David took the helm. But the most interesting character in this tale is the infamous witch. Of course, as befits witches, she is universally portrayed as an ugly old woman with a wrinkled face and withered hands crippled by arthritis. I find this description profoundly unjust. In my imagination, she is a handsome young lady — not בעלת האוב, but awe-בעלת ה. She might even feel secretly attracted to this broken man, prisoner of his own superstition. The story tells that she offered Saul meat and mead to restore him before his voyage, but it remains silent whether she offered anything else to console him (and, perhaps, to draw a Hallelujah from his lips.) One day I might even write a story (or, better, a poem) about this charming character.

Speaking of awesome witches and beautiful femmes fatales, the power of the moonlight to dethrone unelected officials merits an honorary mention. Another victim of the moon, as Bulgakov has brilliantly noted. Indeed, in The Master and Margarita, he is obsessed with the full moon, the moonlight, and their destabilizing effect on the human psyche. Moonlight makes many victims in that book; the long list includes the schizophrenic poet Ivan Bezdomny, Berlioz (not the composer) whose last living memory is that of the full moon split into fragments, Margarita’s neighbor Nikolai Ivanovich, the thrice romantic Master, and, of course, the cruel Fifth Procurator of Judaea, the knight Pontius Pilate. But a moonlight pathway also symbolizes absolution and eternal refuge, and it is by striding this ephemerous path that the cruel hegemon reconciles with another victim of the moon that he created with his own hands (by washing them) — the naive Yeshua ha-Notsri. So it seems more than plausible that King David also succumbed to the devastating influence of earth’s natural satellite, but at the same time redeemed himself in the eyes of his Lord after having been punished for polyamory (as well as for flirting with other deities.)

When it comes to faith, David stands out boldly from the cohort of kings of Israel. The very mentioning that his faith needed proof makes me raise my eyebrows. In general, a similar statement would sound like an oxymoron in King David’s epoch, as in ancient times the belief in a super-human, supernatural deity was a self-evident truth. There was simply no other option. The third word in the opening Hebrew sentence of the book of Genesis, בְּרֵאשִׁית בָּרָא אֱלֹהִים אֵת הַשָּׁמַיִם וְאֵת הָאָרֶץ, already introduces god, and the authors — well, even though the authors’ names were anonymized to adhere to the review policies, the book still had them, flesh and blood — the authors don’t even bother to justify the sudden appearance of the protagonist on the stage. Several centuries later and not very far away, in the city of Alexandria, another venerated scripture is written. This celebrated book is translated, published, and studied probably as much as Genesis, and is a notch more useful for the comprehension of the workings of the Universe. I’m talking about Euclid’s Elements, of course. Euclid, being more methodical, starts with a short list of “common notions” and “postulates” regarded as self-evident and requiring no proof: things that equal the same thing are equal to each other; the whole is greater than the part; and if a line segment intersects two straight lines forming two interior angles on the same side that sum to less than two right angles, then the two lines, if extended indefinitely, meet on that side on which the angles sum to less than two right angles. It took two thousand years until a man dared conceive of a geometry where the latter self-evident truth, appearing fifth on Euclid’s list, could be replaced by an alternative truth. Carl Friedrich Gauss entertained himself with this heresy for four decades, but when it came to speaking out, the colossus suffered from a sudden leg tremor. The great Kraut was too pious for a thing so unholy, and the iconoclasm was postponed until his talented pupil Bernhard Riemann, with the characteristic German attention to detail, blueprinted non-Euclidean geometry. So much for self-evident truths. But I’m left with an unsettled doubt: was Cohen’s phrase a mere slip of the tongue (an easy one to commit a century after god’s declaration of death signed by another famous German)? Was it a poetic license? Or did David actually challenge the existence of his imaginary Master (the less romantic one)? We’ll never know the truth.

The last stanza is more interesting. Actually, I have never heard it sung in any of the interpretations I’m aware of, but it does perfectly fit my own idea of Hallelujah. Despite the clearly religious name of the song (הללויה = praise ye, Yah[veh]), I think Cohen does not refer to the theistic “Lord” but to a metaphorical “Lord of Song”, the source of his musical and poetic inspiration. At least, being myself a materialist to the bones (Sean Carroll’s term poetic naturalist probably fits better), I prefer to interpret any reference to god in this secular key. I believe that what Cohen tries to say is something that, I’m sure, every musician will honestly subscribe to: it is excruciatingly hard to produce (good) music and to express feelings with it. It’s a bet every time you touch the keys (or the strings, or open your mouth.) Cohen himself is told to have been reduced to banging his head on the floor in a New York hotel room, probably trying to grasp that elusive secret chord. I imagine a metaphorical celestial encounter of the singer with his Lord of Song, very austere, very tender, very intimate… this is how I tried to render it. And even if it might have gone all wrong, I still feel appropriate to sing hallel to Cohen’s Lord for inspiring him to write such a masterpiece.

As a post scriptum, here is another rendition of the song. The video was recorded on a different occasion when I played Hallelujah with Neri Topchiu (a real musician) who added a very interesting and unusual touch with his amazing double bass.

One reply to “A secret chord”:

  1. Yulia says:

    I was enjoying every moment ?
    Alex, thank you!

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