I never got around to writing a post about this wonderful piece that was performed at the Chorale’s March 2020 concert and wanted to go ahead and put it up. Did you enjoy the song but wonder a little bit about the words? Well, I’m all set to tell you about the meaning. The tenors and basses (in other words, the men plus me) sang “Oft in the Stilly Night” with text by the early-19th-century Irish poet Thomas Moore. I want to explore the imagery of the poem and then take a look at the composer of the version we sang.
But first let me mention a mention of Moore in Gone With the Wind (the novel, not the film). Gerald O’Hara, Scarlett O’Hara’s father, who has come over from Ireland in the early 1800’s, “knew no poetry save that of Moore.” He’s a fascinating character in his own right. (Perhaps more so than his daughter? Heresy, I know!) I thought it was so interesting that Margaret Mitchell included Moore’s name in her book; I wonder how many of her readers in the mid-1930’s recognized it? I have to say, by the way, that if you think GWTW is just a pot-boiler you’d be wrong. Mitchell did an enormous amount of research in order to get it as accurate as possible.
Okay. Back to Thomas Moore. Here’s what I wrote about him in an earlier post when we sang a piece with lyrics by him:
Let’s begin with Thomas Moore, the author of our lyrics, an Irishman who lived from 1779-1852. He had a long and varied career, as they say, which could have ended much sooner if the duel he was supposed to fight in 1806 had not been stopped by the authorities; he forever afterward had to deal with rumors that his opponent (the editor of a critical review) had been given an unloaded pistol.
Eventually Moore was persuaded to write lyrics to some already-established Irish airs.
Moore’s most famous poems are perhaps “The Last Rose of Summer” and “Believe Me, If All Those Endearing Young Charms.” That second song suffers from the same drawback as “Stilly Night”—it’s not at all clear what the piece is about from the title. You have to pursue the poem through a number of lines to get to the overall point. (Just a note here, since I brought it up: Wikipedia says that Moore’s young wife was ill and afraid that she’d lose her looks. Moore wrote “Charms” to reassure her, saying that even if her beauty were to fade away he’d love her still.)
Let me settle one issue first: “stilly” simply means “still,” that is, peaceful and quiet. (Just don’t misread it as “silly”!) So, Moore says, often in the still night, before he falls asleep (“ere slumber’s chain has bound me”), he is surrounded by fond memories of the past, ones that are bittersweet The poem sounds as if it were written by someone elderly, but Moore was still fairly young when he wrote it. In any case, the speaker in the poem looks back on his past with longing: “the smiles, the tears, of boyhood’s years, . . . the cheerful hearts now broken!” All of those times are now gone, leaving only “sad memory.”
Then the poem moves into symbolic territory, and I have to say that when I was working on the song I got rather confused, thinking that Moore was describing a real scene and that the poem was about his wandering around in the middle of the night suffering from insomnia. He describes a deserted banquet hall where he is the only one left: “whose lights are fled, whose garlands dead.” But I hadn’t gotten the full import of the line “I feel like one who treads alone.” He’s describing his emotions, not his actual situation. There he is, lying in bed and thinking about all of his departed friends, and it’s as if he’s surveying the detritus of an empty room after the party is over. Everything is gone; all that’s left is the memories. The strong implication is that his life in the present is pretty sad.
As I understood the meaning of the poem more fully I was reminded of a realization I’d had many years ago about falling asleep: that I could tell when sleep was upon me because my thoughts would start going in all directions. Was there any research on the topic of that intermediate state? I wondered. Yes, indeed—and very recent research, too. An article in The Atlantic from 2016 outlined the science on the subject:
There is a brief time, between waking and sleep, when reality begins to warp. Rigid conscious thought starts to dissolve into the gently lapping waves of early stage dreaming and the world becomes a little more hallucinatory, your thoughts a little more untethered. Known as the hypnagogic state, it has received only erratic attention from researchers over the years, but a recent series of studies have renewed interest in this twilight period, with the hope it can reveal something fundamental about consciousness itself. (“The Trippy State Between Wakefulness and Sleep”)
In other words, the time between sleep and wakefulness is a “liminal” time. Isn’t that a great word? It means a “threshold” time, a period of transition. As the speaker in Moore’s poem crosses that threshold he re-visits his past life and laments that it is indeed past. The “garlands,” or flower arrangements for the banquet, are all dead, as are the “leaves in wintry weather.” We’ll hope that he felt more cheerful the next morning!
Moore’s poem was originally set to a traditional Irish tune, but in 2017 a young composer/conductor named Kevin Padworski published his own version, with a beautiful melody enhanced by a violin and parts for tenors and basses. I include videos below, first of his composition and then of the traditional one.