Exploring the Lullaby

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The lullaby is universal and timeless. It’s one of the clearest expressions of the deep bond between mother and young child. Its gentle, repetitive, rocking rhythm lulls infants to sleep. The simple expression of its melody evokes warmth and security. At the same time, many lullabies contain an inexplicable hint of sadness.

From Franz Schubert to George Gershwin to U2, music history is full of lullabies. Here are five of my favorites:

Schubert’s Wiegenlied, Op. 98, No. 2

We’ll begin with the simple perfection of Franz Schubert’s Wiegenlied, Op. 98, No. 2, written in November, 1816. You can read the text here. Listen to the way this performance by mezzo-soprano Janet Baker and pianist Gerald Moore fades into sleepy oblivion:

Brahms’ Wiegenlied, Op. 49, No. 4

Johannes Brahms may have written the world’s most famous lullaby. Wiegenlied, Op. 49, No.4  was dedicated to Brahms’ former lover, Bertha Faber, after the birth of her son. The melody found its way into the first movement of Brahms’ Second Symphony in a slightly altered form. You can hear it at this moment about four minutes into the movement.

Violinist Rachel Barton Pine included a transcription of the Brahms Lullaby on her 2013 Violin Lullabies album (pictured above).

The text is from Des Knaben Wunderhorn, a collection of German folk poems which inspired composers from Schumann and Mahler to Webern. Here is a performance by Anne Sofie von Otter and pianist Bengt Forsberg. Notice the gentle rocking rhythm and hypnotic repetition of the tonic in the piano line.

Julie’s Lullaby from Dvořák’s “The Jacobin”

Antonín Dvořák’s rarely performed 1889 opera, The Jacobin, is set in Bohemia around the time of the French Revolution. The aging Count Harasova is preparing to hand over power to his nephew, Adolf. Harasova has disowned his son, Bohuš who has just returned home from Paris with a French wife, Julie. The scheming Adolf has convinced Harasova that Bohuš is a dangerous revolutionary, allied with the Jacobins. By the end of the opera, Count Harasova realizes that he has been deceived and proclaims Bohuš to be his true successor.

In Act III, Scene V, Count Harasova hears Julie sing Synáčku, můj květe (“Son of mine, mine flower”)It’s a lullaby that the late Countess sang to Bohuš as a child, many years earlier. In the opening of the aria, the sound of the horn seems to take on mystical significance, as if preparing us for the dreamscape of nostalgia and memory which follows.

Julie’s Lullaby enters the same magical Bohemian folk world we hear in Mahler’s Songs of a Wayfarercompleted around the same time, in 1885. As in the Mahler, Dvořák’s aria conjures up a complex and confusing mix of indescribable, but powerful emotions. Notice the way the music slips between major and minor.

Here is Eva Randova and the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra:

Busoni’s Berceuse élégiaque

Ferruccio Busoni’s haunting Berceuse élégiaque turns the lullaby on its head with the subtitle, “The man’s lullaby at his mother’s coffin.” Written in 1909, the first performance was given by the New York Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall on February 21, 1911 with Gustav Mahler conducting. Mahler must have felt strongly about this music because he insisted on conducting, despite a fever of 104. It was his final concert. He returned to Vienna and died three months later.

The rocking rhythm at the opening of this piece is similar to what we heard in Brahms’ Lullaby, but this is an entirely different world. In the opening, dark, murky string colors suggest the feeling of being under water.

Here is a 2010 performance by Amsterdam’s Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra conducted by Ed Spanjaard:

Ravel’s Berceuse sur le nom de Gabriel Fauré

Maurice Ravel wrote this short lullaby in 1922 as a tribute to the 77-year-old Gabriel Fauré. The piece’s motive grew out of Fauré’s name (GABDBEE FAGDE). Behind the music’s innocence and simplicity lies a hint of something dark and ominous. But, like so much of Ravel’s music, we only catch a glimpse of the storm clouds. The piece concludes with a sense of joyful, child-like detachment. It’s like watching a young child who is completely absorbed in the imaginary world of play. The final bars evaporate into a dreamy haze.

This performance comes from a recording by violinist Chantal Juillet and pianist Pascal Rogé:

Hush, little one, and fold your hands;
The sun hath set, the moon is high;
The sea is singing to the sands,
And wakeful posies are beguiled
By many a fairy lullaby:
Hush, little child, my little child!

Dream, little one, and in your dreams
Float upward from this lowly place,–
Float out on mellow, misty streams
To lands where bideth Mary mild,
And let her kiss thy little face,
You little child, my little child!

Sleep, little one, and take thy rest,
With angels bending over thee,–
Sleep sweetly on that Father’s breast
Whom our dear Christ hath reconciled;
But stay not there,–come back to me,
O little child, my little child!

-Emily Dickinson (Sicilian Lullaby)

Schubert’s “Great” Ninth Symphony

schubertChairSymphony No. 9…Throughout music history, this title has occupied a mythic place in the collective imagination. The symphonic output of Beethoven, Schubert, Bruckner, Dvořák, and Mahler culminated with a ninth symphony. In one way or another, all of these works, written in the final years of their composers’ lives, move beyond the ordinary into strange, mysterious and transcendent territory. They stand as awe-inspiring musical revelations.

To be fair, some of these composers wrote slightly more or less than nine symphonies. Anton Bruckner died without completing the final movement of his Ninth Symphony. Yet, as the final, soft chords of its “Farewell to Life” Adagio fade away, the symphony feels strangely complete. When Franz Schubert died at the tragically young age of 31, he left behind a piano score for what would have become his Tenth Symphony. Sketched during the final weeks of Schubert’s life, the score wasn’t authenticated until the 1970s. Brian Newbould attempted to complete and orchestrate the symphony (listen here). Gustav Mahler completed the first, haunting Adagio movement of a Tenth Symphony before he died in 1911.

Arnold Schoenberg captured the mythic aura of the “ninth symphony” in this excerpt from an essay about Mahler:

It seems that the Ninth is a limit. He who wants to go beyond it must pass away. It seems as if something might be imparted to us in the Tenth which we ought not yet to know, for which we are not ready. Those who have written a Ninth stood too close to the hereafter.

Which brings us back to Schubert’s Ninth…Sketched during the summer of 1825, a year after the completion of Beethoven’s epic Ninth Symphony, the “Great” C major Symphony was a radical departure from the small-scale elegant charm of Schubert’s earlier classical symphonies. The nickname, “The Great” was intended to differentiate the work from the “Little” Symphony No. 6 in C major. Schubert’s Ninth rose to the new, heroic scale of Beethoven’s symphonies. But while Beethoven’s music developed in bursts of short motivic cells, Schubert, the composer of over 600 songs, tended to perceive music melodically.

Perhaps due to its length and the technical demands it placed on musicians, the Ninth Symphony was neglected in the immediate years after Schubert’s death. It wasn’t until 1838, ten years after the composer’s death, that Robert Schumann discovered the manuscript and brought it to Felix Mendelssohn, who conducted a performance at the Gewandhaus in Leipzig on March 21, 1839. Schubert’s Ninth Symphony would serve as a profound inspiration for Schumann’s own symphonic aspirations.

A Brief Listeners’ Guide

The first movement opens with an expansive introduction which contains a miniature exposition, development and recapitulation, suggesting Sonata form within the movement’s larger Sonata form structure. The opening theme, which returns triumphantly in the culminating bars of the coda, first emerges as a solitary line played by the horns. As the music develops, allow your ear to drift down to the pizzicato pulse in the low strings. Feel the motion. Stay tuned to the increasing complexity of this sparkling underlying rhythmic motor and the occasional “three against two” rhythms.

Schubert’s Ninth Symphony is full of musical conversations between groups, or “choirs” of instruments. Listen to the way the theme is passed around the orchestra between 0:56 and 3:32 in the clip below. Consider the personas suggested by each group of instruments. The trombones, long associated with the supernatural, rise to a new level of prominence in this symphony. Up until this point, trombones had usually remained in the background, outlining chords. In the Ninth Symphony, for the first time, the three trombones function melodically, adding a powerful and heroic new voice to the mix (6:24, 8:10 and 11:45 in the recapitulation).

Key relationships are also important in this music. In Schubert’s case these often involve modulations built on thirds. Listen for those incredible moments when we’re suddenly whisked off to a surprising new key (the exposition’s second theme at the 5:14 mark, the beginning of the development section at 5:15 and the passage between 10:38 and 10:47).

Here is Herbert Blomstedt conducting the Staatskapelle Dresden:

  1. Andante. Allegretto ma non troppo, Più moto (0:00)
  2. Andante con moto (14:42)
  3. Scherzo. Allegro vivace -Trio (30:36)
  4. Allegro vivace (41:33)

The second movement begins with a jaunty melody which alternates between A minor and C major. But just beneath the surface, an interesting drama is about to unfold. The music suggests a subtle sense of impending conflict and danger. At 16:19 we hit a “brick wall” and the music falls back into line. This musical stop sign occurs throughout the movement and each time the music retreats…until it doesn’t. The intense conflict comes to a head at the movement’s climax (23:48), where we’re suddenly thrust over the edge into new, ferocious territory. At this moment, we hear sounds which would have been unimaginable in an elegant classical symphony. When it’s over there’s a terrifying moment of silence…and then the music resumes. As you listen to the conclusion of the second movement, consider whether this ominous sense of conflict has been resolved, or if it has simply subsided to return another day.

The final movement opens with flourishes which may bring to mind the trumpet calls of Rossini’s William Tell Overture. Keep listening and you may hear echoes of the Ode to Joy from the last movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony…a fitting spiritual connection for two earth shatteringly powerful ninth symphonies.

Featured Recordings

Here are a few prominent recordings of Schubert’s Ninth Symphony. Please share your thoughts about the music and your own favorite recordings in the comment thread below.

Autumn Lieder: Schubert, Schumann, Brahms

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The arrival of autumn yesterday in the Northern Hemisphere provides a good excuse to listen to the incredible art songs of German Romantic composers like Schubert, Schumann and Brahms. Autumn seems to have been a rich source of inspiration for these composers. In poetry, the season has been associated with death and cycles of life, as summer fades and winter approaches. In Friday’s post we’ll listen to Der Einsame im Herbst” (“The Lonely One in Autumn“) from Mahler’s The Song of the Earth. But let’s start with these three earlier songs inspired by autumn:

Schubert’s Herbst

In Franz Schubert’s Herbst (Autumn) D. 945, we are confronted with the terror of immortality. The piano’s continuous, running notes suggest a cold, howling wind. The ominous bass notes evoke something darkly supernatural, maybe even demonic. Listen for sudden harmonic shifts throughout the song. Notice the chord at 0:53 at the end of the verse, “Thus withers away the blossoms of life.” This is harmony which makes us feel trapped and forces us to confront the inevitable. As the line is repeated, Schubert’s harmony goes far afield to accomplish the harmonic resolution we originally expected.

The poem is by  Ludwig Rellstab. This performance features Matthias Goerne and pianist Christoph Eschenbach:

Schumann’s Herbstlied

Robert Schumann’s song places autumn in a cycle of death and rebirth. Listen to the way the music changes in the third stanza in the lines (around 1:00):

Love surely returns again
In the dear forthcoming year
And everything then returns
That has now died away

Read a translation of the text by Siegfried August Mahlmann here. The performers are Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, baritone; Peter Schreier, tenor; and Christoph Eschenbach, piano.

Brahms’ Four Quartets

Autumn turns up in the second of Johannes Brahms’ Vier Quartette Op. 92. The poem, which Brahms set for “Late Autumn”, was written by Hermann Allmers:

The grey mist drops down so silently upon the field, wood and heath
that it is as if Heaven wanted to weep in overwhelming sorrow.

The flowers will bloom no more, the birds are mute in the groves, and the last bit of green has died; Heaven should indeed be weeping. 

In the opening of the first song, listen to the way Brahms captures the expansive majesty of the night sky. This performance features the Chamber Choir of Europe, conducted by Nicol Matt with Jürgen Meier, piano:

  1. O schöne Nacht (“Oh Lovely Night) 0:00
  2. Spätherbst (“Late Autumn”) 4:10
  3. Abendlied (“Evening Song”) 6:00
  4. Warum? (“Why”) 9:12

Schubert’s String Quintet in C Major

Franz SchubertIn a previous post, I suggested that many of the greatest composers experienced a mysterious, heightened sense of musical insight in their final years, leading to some of the most profound and visionary music. Franz Schubert (1797-1828), who died at the tragically young age of 31, tapped into this sense of revelation at the end of his life. Following a series of charmingly tuneful classical symphonies, Schubert’s Symphony No. 9 in C major (“The Great”) rose to the heroic, Romantic heights of Beethoven’s symphonies, although it differed from Beethoven in temperament and was rooted in melody rather than motive.

Equally profound is Schubert’s String Quintet in C major, D. 956, completed just two months before his death. In this piece, the addition of a second cello to the traditional string quartet brings a new dimension to the sound, creating an almost symphonic quality. This contrasts Mozart’s addition of a second viola in his quintets.

One interesting aspect of Schubert’s writing is his ability to draw upon the emotional significance of keys and their relationships. Listen for sudden modulations and harmonic surprises, like the turn to E-flat major (1:56). Consider how this new key, a third away, feels completely different.

The second movement features a contrast between the ethereal, almost time altering opening in E major and the turbulent second theme in a distant F minor. Listen to the way Schubert sums up this dichotomy at the end of the movement (34:00-34:37).

Pay attention to the way the the inner voices and cello pizzicati shape the way the music flows.

Here is a 1994 Naxos recording by the Villa Musica Ensemble:

  1. Allegro ma non troppo 00:00
  2. Adagio 19:54
  3. Scherzo. Presto – Trio. Andante sostenuto 34:54 
  4. Allegretto 45:42

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If you feel inspired, share your thoughts about the music, along with favorite recordings, in the thread below.

Love Songs Through Time

love songRomantic love, with its often irrational sea of complex emotions, has long been a rich source of inspiration in music. With Valentines Day just around the corner, let’s listen to a selection of love songs from the Renaissance to the present day. Most of these songs would have been considered popular music when they were first written. Sampling this list, I was struck by how many great love songs are tinged with melancholy. These songs serve as a reminder of the ability of music to communicate powerful and contradictory emotions which cannot be expressed in words.

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]”Come Again” by John Dowland [/typography]

John Dowland (1563-1626) was an English Renaissance composer, singer and lutenist. Sting’s 2006 recording of Dowland songs (Songs from the Labyrinth) demonstrates the timelessness of this music. Listen to the way the melody expresses the text, especially in the breathlessly euphoric “To see, to hear, to touch, to kiss, to die…” You can read the entire text here.

Here is tenor Paul Agnew and lutenist Christopher Wilson:

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[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Des Fischers Liebesglück, D.933[/typography]

Now let’s listen to Des Fischers Liebesglück, D.933 (The Fisherman’s Luck in Love) by Franz Schubert (1797-1828). Listen carefully to the harmony and consider the feelings evoked by certain chords. Notice how the music alternates restlessly between minor and major. The first turn to major comes with the first reference to the “beloved.” Here is the text by Karl Gottfried von Leitner.

This recording features tenor Christoph Genz accompanied by pianist Wolfram Rieger:

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[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Liebeslieder Walzer[/typography]

Next let’s hear Johannes Brahms’s (1833-1897) Liebeslieder Walzer, Op. 52. Musicologists speculate that Brahms’s infatuation with Clara Schumann’s daughter was the inspiration behind these waltzes.

The singers on this 1968 recording are Heather Harper, Soprano, Janet Baker, Mezzo-soprano, Peter Pears, Tenor and Thomas Hensley, Baritone. Benjamin Britten & Claudio Arrau play the piano part, which requires four hands.

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[quote]My soul trembles with love, desire and grief, when it thinks of you.[/quote]

-conclusion of Liebeslieder Walzer text

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Songs of a Wayfarer[/typography]

Gustav Mahler’s (1860-1911) Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (‘Songs of a Wayfarer’) deals directly with the pain of love lost. It’s an autobiographical work, springing from Mahler’s unsuccessful relationship with the soprano, Johanna Richter. The text, based on Des Knaben Wunderhorn was written by Mahler. In a letter he explained:

[quote]I have written a cycle of songs which are all dedicated to her. She has not seen them. What could they tell her that she does not know already?[/quote]

-“Mahler” by Kurt Blaukopf

In Songs of a Wayfarer, the orchestra is not merely accompaniment but an equal dramatic partner to the singer. What moods and colors are evoked by the orchestration? Consider the emotional impact of the dream-like conclusion of the fourth song, a funeral march. Notice the way the music alternates between melancholy despair and transcendent moments of joy. Mahler’s first song cycle, Songs of a Wayfarer provided the seeds for his Symphony No. 1. Get more historical background here.

This recording is by Leonard Bernstein and the Vienna Philharmonic:

  1.  “Wenn mein Schatz Hochzeit macht” (“When My Sweetheart is Married”) (0:00)
  2. “Ging heut Morgen übers Feld” (“I Went This Morning over the Field”) (4:20)
  3. “Ich hab’ein glühend Messer” (“I Have a Gleaming Knife”) (8:27)
  4. “Die zwei blauen Augen von meinem Schatz” (“The Two Blue Eyes of my Beloved”) (11:47)

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[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]A Boy and A Girl[/typography]

American composer Eric Whitacre’s (b. 1970) A Boy and a Girl is a choral setting of a poem by Octavio Paz1914-1998. The poem paints three scenes, ultimately drifting into infinity:

https://soundcloud.com/ericwhitacre/a-boy-and-a-girl

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Death and the Maiden

Following up on last month’s post, let’s return to the music of Franz Schubert. Now we’ll hear how Schubert cleverly turned the melody of one of his songs into the second movement of a string quartet.

Let’s start by listening to the song Death and the Maiden, written in 1817.  It’s performed here by the legendary contralto, Marian Anderson.  The text is from a poem by Matthias Claudius.  Follow the English translation below.

Death and the Maiden D.531…Franz Schubert (1797-1828)

The Maiden:

Pass me by! Oh, pass me by!
Go, fierce man of bones!
I am still young! Go, rather,
And do not touch me.
And do not touch me.

Death:

Give me your hand, you beautiful and tender form!
I am a friend, and come not to punish.
Be of good cheer! I am not fierce,
Softly shall you sleep in my arms!

Did you notice all the ways Schubert musically evokes the mood of the poem? The repeated rhythm suggests a solemn funeral procession, perhaps a march towards inevitability.  We hold our breath in anticipation as the same note is repeated in the melody, while the harmony underneath changes.  One interesting aspect of the melody is that it modulates from the key of D minor to F major (1:39) and then slides back again.  These keys are related because they both have B-flat as their only accidental.  Did you notice the sudden and transformative shift to D major at the end?  Consider the significance of Schubert’s choice to turn minor into major at this moment.  What emotional impact does this create?

Eight years after writing this song, at a time when Schubert was confronting his own mortality, he returned to this melody for the second movement of a string quartet.  First you will hear the melody played simply, without embellishment. Then, Schubert launches into a series of brilliant variations that feature different instruments of the quartet.  It’s amazing how many new musical ideas and contrasting moods can spring from this simple tune!

String Quartet No. 14 in D minor (Death and the Maiden) D.810…Franz Schubert (1797-1828)

II. Andante con moto

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Now that you have heard this excerpt you may be inspired to listen to the other three movements of the quartet.  Pay attention to the exciting interplay between the four voices (two violins, a viola and a cello) as musical ideas are passed back and forth.  I think you’ll agree that from the fiery opening of the first movement to the fast and wild Presto it’s an exhilarating and sometimes terrifying musical roller coaster ride. Here are links to the rest of the piece: I. Allegro,  III. Scherzo Allegro molto IV. Presto.  

Leave a comment below and share your thoughts on the music.