Exploring the Lullaby


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:


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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.

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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:

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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:

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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:


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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)

Different Trains

Steam locomotive running gear

One of my fondest early childhood memories was visiting the Arcade and Attica Railroad for a summer afternoon train ride. Nestled in the rolling Western New York countryside east of Buffalo, it’s one of a handful of places where visitors can get up close and personal with a steam locomotive. Beyond the soot and flying cinders, the sound of a steam engine may be the most memorable aspect of the experience. It huffs, puffs and breaths as if it’s alive. It laboriously chugs up a hill with a persistent rhythm. If you’ve never been close to a steam engine these clips from Arcade, Stockton, California and the Railroad Museum in Strasburg, Pennsylvania will give you some idea.

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Pacific 231[/typography]

Swiss composer Arthur Honegger (1892-1955) found musical inspiration in the steam locomotive. Honegger wrote Pacific 231 partly as a musical experiment. His goal was to create music which gave the impression of increasing rhythmic momentum and a simultaneous slowing of tempo. Here is how Honegger described the music:

[quote]I have always loved locomotives passionately. For me they are living beings whom I love as others love women or horses. What I sought to achieve in Pacific 231 was not the imitation of the noises of the locomotive but rather the translation of a visual impression and of the physical enjoyment through a musical construction. It opens with an objective observation, the calm respiration of the machine at rest, the effort of the start, a gradual increase in speed, ultimately attaining the lyrical stage, the pathos of a train 300 tons in weight launched in the dark of night at 120 kilometers an hour. For my subject I selected a locomotive of the Pacific type, bearing the number 231.[/quote]

Listen to Pacific 231 and enjoy the sense of motion and raw energy. Can you feel the pressure building in the opening? Can you hear the train gaining speed, working to get up a hill, slowing at the end of the trip and ultimately finding a final rest?

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Music is all around us-even in our machines. In the eighteenth century composers were influenced by brooks, pastures and birdsongs. By the industrial twentieth century the world had become louder and more dissonant. What kind of music is being produced by our increasingly wired, information saturated twenty first century world?

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]From Chicago to New York[/typography]

Growing up during World War II, Steve Reich (b. 1936) frequently traveled by train between New York and Los Angeles to visit his separated parents. A Jewish American, Reich later realized that European Jews were riding trains to concentration camps during the same years. This realization was the inspiration for Different Trains, written in 1988 for string quartet and tape. Reich constructed the piece around fragments of recorded voices. For the first movement, Reich recorded his former governess and a long retired railway porter reminiscing about the trains of the 1930’s and 40’s. In the second and third movements we hear the voices of Holocaust survivors. Here is a clip of Reich talking about Different Trains.

Listen to the first movement, America-Before the War, performed by the Kronos Quartet. How does the music unfold? Is the motion fast or slow? Can you sense the recorded speech developing in any way? Do you hear anything “musical” or expressive in the voices?

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When I listen to this music I notice that I have a heightened sense of awareness of the moment. I find myself  becoming one with the sound. Repeated musical phrases take on a unique power. While Different Trains has a fairly fast pulse, it evolves slowly. Did the music change your perception of time? Did we just turn up the volume on something that has always been there and will continue into infinity? You probably noticed a gradual additive process in the recorded voices. As each fragment is repeated and enlarged, more musical “space” is taken up. The instruments imitate the pitch inflection of each spoken fragment.

Something was in the air in the 1960’s which led Steve Reich, Philip Glass and others to begin writing repetitive, circular music. This new direction in music, known as Minimalism, was partly a reaction to the complexity of atonal or 12-tone music. A similar movement occurred in the art world slightly earlier. Think about the endlessly repeating chorus of your favorite Pop song-anything from Disco and Techno to Phil Collins or Joe Jackson. How are these songs similar in flow to the Minimalism of Steve Reich?

[quote]Time is a train…Makes the future the past…Leaves you standing in the station…Your face pressed up against the glass -U2[/quote]

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Zoo Station[/typography]

Zoo Station is the opening track of U2’s 1991 album, Achtung Baby. The song was inspired by Berlin’s Zoologischer Garten railway station and Europe at a crossroads in the early 1990’s following the fall of the Iron Curtain. After a night of Allied bombing damaged Berlin’s zoo during World War II, animals were found wandering freely in the streets amid the rubble. Bono viewed this story as a metaphor for Eastern Europe’s liberation after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

With this album U2 went in a new direction, using recording techniques such as distortion in the drums and vocals. Interestingly, you may be reminded of the additive process of Steve Reich (the opening of the song and around 2:44):


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