We, humans, understand lullabies, everyone does, and this is not an understatement. Even if we cannot explicate the lyrics, our brains are hard-wired to recognize the nuances of music or the meaning of it. Whatever the finer overtones suggest, that the core elements of music are always universally comprehended.
Music has always been a doorway to the subconscious world of imagination, our very own Narnia. This isn’t something new, berceuses, lullabies, and nocturnes have been crafted for centuries with a principal aim - to calm our mind, to cradle our loved ones to the fantasy world of dreams. So, today we are going to embark on a new journey. Here we are kicking off with a list of our favorite classical Lullabies:
Richard Strauss' Wiegenlied Op. 41, No. 1
Richard Strauss composed his Lullaby “Wiegenlied Op. 41, No. 1” for piano and voice in German during the Romantic period. He later transposed the melody to C. When compared to other orchestral classics, Strauss offers a slightly rapid tone, utilizing his musical prowess to soar effortlessly into the upper echelons of a melodious repertoire. The music is as beautiful as one can wish for, yet it is free from any layer of interpretative glaze that might distance the listener from the emotional quotient originally intended. It can be accurately described as something deeply moving, yet direct and simple. By the time the listener approaches the end part, they are bound to be an emotional mess, and the stillness achieved throughout the song is simply magical.
Johannes Brahms' Wiegenlied Op. 49, No. 4
A list of classical lullabies cannot be completed without Johannes Brahms’s Wiegenlied Op. 49, No. 4. Although the song has some great English translations, it sounds more authentic and sophisticated when sung in its original version - German. The song was originally written for piano and voice and was first published in the year 1868. The first verse contains lyrics from “Des Knaben Wunderhorn,” a German collection of folk poems, while Georg Scherer crafted the second verse in 1849. Brahms dedicated his Lullaby to Bertha Faber, his friend. He intended to disclose his feelings towards her through this composition. In 1869, Clara Schumann and Louise Dustmann collaborated to perform the Lullaby in public in Vienna for the first time.
Later, Brahm’s also used the melody of his Lullaby as a theme in the first movement of his famous composition - “Second Symphony.” In 1922, Percy Grainger arranged the song for solo piano as a part of his album titled “Free Settings of Favorite Melodies.” This version is characterized by its extensive use of arpeggiation and suspensions. In 1936, the title of Johann Brahms’ biographical film was “Guten Abend, gute Nacht,” the opening line of the Lullaby.
Franz Schubert's Wiegenlied D. 498
Franz Schubert's composed his lullaby “Schlafe, schlafe, holder süßer Knabe,” D 498, in 1816. This delightful melody has the aura of a heartfelt, fragile - the quintessential Schubert. However, on paper, it hardly oscillates between dominant and tonic. His composition offers a touch of inevitability, something that is bound to be a source of envy among any composer.
The composition also has a perplexing factor, a conundrum in its middle verse. Here, a cradle is either described as comfortable and peaceful in an almost poetic way, or it is something terrible that actually relates to the demise of a child. The composer is presumed to have been heavily affected by the first verse. The intrusive “shadow of the grave” is absent from Schubert’s composition, unlike so many of the early Romantic pieces.
The song was somewhat tragic and prophetic to the increasing events of Infant mortality, and renders a plethora of tenderness and consolation, expressing gratitude towards the value of life, however short it may be. Schubert has used his major key in a poignant way, integrating a dose of self-pity combined with heart-breaking bravery that adds to the overall melancholy theme. In 1935, Schubert’s Wiegenlied was utilized in “Mille cherubini in coro,” a song of the movie titled “Vergiß mein nich.” Alois Melichar crafted this version for orchestra and voice. It was also performed by the Berlin State Opera Orchestra in collaboration with Beniamino Gigli. In modern times, the celebrated tenor Luciano Pavarotti performs the song in Christmas concerts.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's Wiegenlied K. 350
Mozart’s Lullaby “Wiegenlied K. 350” can be described aptly as something very simple, yet hauntingly beautiful. The opening lines of German Lullaby read, “Sleep, my little prince, fall asleep.” It is rightly attributed as the most famous Wiegenlied from 1700-1800. The lyrics are attributed to Friedrich Wilhelm Gotter. Although Mozart was commonly believed to be the creator of the melody, the attribution of the melody has been shifted to Bernhard Flies with time. Bernhard was a German doctor of medicine and an amateur composer.
Felix Mendelssohn’s Wiegenlied Op 67, No. 6
Mendelssohn's Lullaby “Wiegenlied Op 67, No. 6” is often characterized as a un-shallow yet uncomplicated offering from one of the most underappreciated and underrated geniuses. It’s the German response to the sphere of Romantic minimalism. The song is set in “E major,” which is a further testament to Mendelssohn’s genius. The set starts off with an “Andante” in “E flat,” which is quite straightforward. An abrupt “F sharp” follows as the third part of the set is another “Andante” in “B flat,” albeit a more peaceful one. The penultimate part of this classical poetry set to music is a much simpler B minor.
Frederic Chopin's Berceuse Op. 57
Frédéric Chopin's lullaby - “Berceuse, Op. 57,” was composed for piano. The origin of this song can be dated back to 1843/1844. The composer initially titled it as “Variantes” as a tribute to his usage of variations in “D-flat major.” This song was a late composition with respect to Chopin's career. And it contains complex figuration of the piano, albeit with a calm bass shaping its sonority and texture. Chopin first started working on the theme and added the two measures of introduction at a later date.
In 1844, Jean-Racine Meissonnier first published Berceuse and dedicated it to Élise Gavard. He later changed it to “Berceuse,” which means “Cradle-song.” In 1845, the song was first published in England by “Wessel & Co.” and in Germany by “Breitkopf & Härtel.”
The work was created as a series containing sixteen short variations on “ostinato ground bass.” The music starts and ends at the time signature “6/8.” The four measures offer a steady flow, and the variations are not entirely divisive when compared to the rest of the song. Multiple variations offer individualistic ornamental lines, complex and delicate, yet at a rapid pace. There is a stark contrast to the bass. The dynamics are quite low throughout as the bass changes only once, at the penultimate stage. The melody is aggregately displayed throughout, aptly backed by the syncopated banter between the theme and the middle voice. Between bars 15 to 18, the theme solely offers grace notes, and in the final segment, pulverizes into a volatile, luminous, and almost immaterial alterations of adjacent notes. It finally returns to its original state between bars 63 to 66.
These simplistic, albeit beguiling pieces, have defined the classical musical sphere for centuries. They have been omnipresent, briskly offering the delicacy of something utterly inevitable and timeless, something that has offered us an escape, a soothing embrocation for our senses. They have been astonishingly assured, and ravishingly beautiful when called upon. Without these Lullabies, our understanding of something so eloquent would have surely been left incomplete, something that was created to be heard appreciatively.