Still, Still, Still - Part 2

December 22, 2007

"Still, Still, Still", Part 2: (Or, "Why I am probably a musicologist")

Mormon Tabernacle ChoirStill, still, still, I am lost in the siren call of this simple song. Still, I sit, still, and listen again and again, wondering with an awakened heart why I am so moved by the mystery of this music.

"Still, Still, Still" is a traditional Austrian song with this "Salzburg" melody dating from 1819. Like many old songs that stay among us through time, it has many different lyrics, possibly different melodies. Without a doubt, it has cast its spell in many arrangements, harmonies, tempi and the like. While this particular melody is a deceptive stroke of genius, simple and natural enough to be a law of the universe as if discovered by one lone sensitive pioneer, it is in fact this specific arrangement that makes it so supremely bewitching.

I cannot help myself from attempting to describe at least some of its features. You may or may not care. Still, I will write in a junkie's spell, wary with melancholy that, like all love affairs, this will soon end, leaving me numb until the next "fix" in future time unknown.

The orchestration is rather special: it is a string orchestra using only the four members of a single family, one of our greatest cultural and technical achievements that reached its unsurpassed perfection well before the birth of Bach. Violin, viola, cello and bass in masses much larger than chamber music join into a wash of sound that has the power to suggest the whole incorporeal vastness of the universe. This is more than mere hyperbole. The arrangement has the strings come and go in carefully calculated swells like waves, like breathing, a lullaby in the veils of dream. To what expressive purpose? The lyrics hold the answer: still, still, still—sleep, sleep, sleep. This is a plea to the infant lord of the universe that he may rest before he "wakes the world from slumber."

Time. The time of year, the time of man, the precise moment in time in which this recording was made and the exact sense of time with which its music moves. What likely makes this particular recording unique is its expression of time through a simple choice of pace. The tempo is key. Any slower or faster and its nature would change. Here again are the swells, the waves. At what speed does the calm breathing of peaceful slumber progress? This detail animates the sound at such a rate as to synchronize with our own natural, organic processes. Music is a very specifically a reflection if not an embodiment of human life.

Counting one, two, three. First one, then two, then three. From Dr. Seuss to the mysticism of the trinity, the simple power of numbers joins time as one of the underlying elemental features of the most complex music. This song invites a discovery about each of these numbers: one, two and three.

There are three verses. A choir of men sings the first, voices bound in unison without harmony. The second verse is no mere repetition. Sung by a chorus of women likewise joined in a single line of monophony, the same melody floats in a much higher register bringing a fresh new light that immediately establishes a polarity. Low, then high, men, and then women. Music lives through variation. Though things recur, they are never the same. We change from moment to moment, from season to season. As water flows, so you can never step in the same river twice.

But still we long to bridge these changes with an overarching unity: a history, an identity, a single story held in one consciousness that witnesses both diversity and unity at once. The third verse does precisely this: both men and women sing together, joined yet separate, merged yet still distinguishable as constituent parts. This happens through another musical simplicity that is nothing less than the mysterious complexity I call the "ecstasy of simultaneity." Men and women each sing different melodies that fit together like lovers. In the movie Amadeus, Mozart explains that several people talking at the same time is indistinguishable chaos, but several people singing at the same time can be not only coherent, but also especially beautiful. Two melodies together beguile our awareness so exquisitely that we are both torn apart and united at the same time: diverging and converging, departing and arriving, longing and fulfilling all at once. Musically, something else happens: the two single melodic lines (men and women) intertwine, point against point (counterpoint) creating a whole new phenomenon called harmony. Black and white turns to color. All these seemingly esoteric considerations might appear to be phantoms of the mind but for their expressive intent: sleep, sleep sleep whisper father and mother, the unity of loving parents to their tender child.

If you are not convinced that the number three permeates this simple song (three verses, three vocal combinations, three persons as father, mother and child, "Still, Still, Still"), reconsider the accompaniment by string orchestra. On a macro level, there are really just three instruments: men, women and strings. What is more, listen closely to the strings as they breathe alone between verses: the strings divide every time precisely into three strands. Listen more closely and you will hear this as a constant in the string arrangement throughout.

It gives me a chill to reflect that, according to Christian doctrine, Christ is the third part of the trinity. It is not the significance of the doctrine that strikes me but the apparently purposeful integrity of music that sings directly to baby Jesus.

The notion of a trinity as a mystically intertwined plurality becoming a unity suggests that this song might be more about "one" than "three", that ultimately this complexity ought to resolve into simplicity or at least a kind of singularity. We have already observed the joining of three melodic lines into one (men, women and strings into a single three-part texture). But there is more. The third verse rises to a climax with new, rich harmonies that pierce the heart with another ecstatic unity so essential to great music: the commingling of joy and sorrow. What began as an untroubled lullaby swells into a great mass of sound tinged with the dark stain of momentary anguish. Longing and fulfillment, pain and pleasure, innocence and sin. Life holds both and the story in the song is quite specifically this: the momentary repose of the infant before he becomes the tragic man. The beauty of this song rests on the awareness of both, holding them together in a single embrace of acknowledgement.

Still, still, still, I find something else, yet another aspect of this movement from complexity to simplicity, from plurality to unity. How does a musical journey end? There are many artistic solutions, but the arrangement of this song makes some particularly wonderful choices. After the final verse, the voices come to rest on a single, unharmonized note that repeats over and over while the strings continue their steady breathing, one repeated note that, like an echo, seems to hold all the music that came before it in a single unwavering affirmation. A rich musical journey encapsulated in one note. And in a final ghostly echo, a single strand of the string orchestra sings the now familiar opening melody, a descending line in three "uplifting" gestures that softly fall like snow that melts into one last conclusive phrase: three final notes, "me", "re", "do." Simple. Marvelous. Possibly revelatory. I celebrate less the religion of God than the religious pursuit of music that astonishes with its own divinity.

"Still, still, still". The wavelike motion of slumber breathing. Father, mother and child. Joy and sorrow, the oblivion of sleep and the awakening to an awareness of fate. All of these seem to course through this music, this particular arrangement of a most singularly haunting tune found in Austria around 1819.

And what of the credibility or the accuracy of this long tirade that threatens to destroy a beautiful mystery through irritating analysis? Is all this really in the song? I can only say that this is how the song has come to move through me and leave you with the compelling thought of a recently departed composer:

"Let no one suppose that the composer may be better able to interpret the musical vibrations transmitted through him, than a commentator who immerses himself body and soul, in this music. All the commentaries that have ever been, and those yet to be written, all the thoughts and dreams and impressions and visions and actions that my music arouses in its hearers, all these, no less, add up to the meaning of this music—something that must always remain largely a mystery, never totally to be comprehended by a single individual."

—Karl Stockhausen (d. 2007)