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Lullaby, and Good Night

Shhh...baby is (almost) sleeping
Bastien Jaillot
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Someone asked me recently what was the first piece of classical music I had heard, or that I knew was “classical.” That one was easy: Brahms’s Wiegenlied (Lullaby), Op. 49, No. 4. My mother chose a different lullaby for each of her babies, and first-born Laura was treated to a nightly singing of the one that starts, “Lullaby, and good night…” She said she’d sing it once and I’d be out for the night.

Since that was “my” lullaby, it was mine to pass on, too. I chose it for my baby son’s lullaby. Sometimes three or four or five times in a row. Every. Single. Night.

OK. So sometimes lullabies work on their own, and sometimes, when your party boy-infant doesn’t think he’s done with the day, it takes a little more effort. But in the end, I found that Brahms always wins.

A number of studies note that people need to feel soothed before they can fall asleep, including a January 2016 article in Education Week. Doctoral candidate Marieve Corbeil, at the University of Montreal, found that hearing lullabies sung was, “the best way to calm an infant.” She went on to explain further that parental singing, even if out of tune, was all-important to the baby. “Babies aren’t music critics. What matters to them are familiar voices, familiar songs, smiling faces, and a loving tone of voice.”

Not surprising that it’s part of the human experience. Archeologists found that a lullaby was etched on a stone some 2,000 years ago! So again, not surprising, some of the loveliest pieces of classical music fall under the lullaby category.

Turns out, lullabies aren’t just for babies. I can’t count how many people, friends, and WCRB listeners have confided to me that, during the pandemic, they’ve played lullabies for themselves as they tucked into bed. If that’s you, too, here are some of the sweetest, sure-to-soothe pieces to put on your sleepy-time playlist.

The “Brahms Lullaby,” as so many call it today, was a gift to Brahms’s former girlfriend, Bertha, on the birth of her second child. It seems that in their courtship days, Bertha would sing a famous German folk tune to Johannes as they went on daily walks. Although he had broken up with her, he never forgot her, and when they met up years later, he worked in the folk tune she had sung to him all through the gentle notes of the lullaby for her baby, Johannes. Idil Beret plays this instrumental version.

And Jonas Kaufmann sings this version:

Chopin’s piano lullaby, Berceuse (Cradle Song), Op. 57, was written in 1843 and 1844, possibly inspired by Louisette, the little daughter of singer Pauline Viardot. I thought this version with pianist Maria João Pires was fitting because, when I interviewed her maybe 20 years ago, she told me that since her four daughters had grown, she adopted a little boy (she has since adopted a second boy), so she could “mother” once again. She took him with her around the world (and to our studios). He was shy, but responded to his mom’s smiles.

While not titled a lullaby, that was Robert Schumann’s intention when he wrote Träumerai (Dreaming) as part of his Kinderszenen (Scenes from Childhood), Op.15. Martha Argerich plays it here:

And for hundreds of years this Wiegenlied (Lullaby), K. 350, was attributed to Mozart, who wrote it to lyrics by Friedrich Wilhelm Gotter. Recent scholarship now says that either Bernard Flies or Johann Fleischmann actually wrote the piece. Until that gets straightened out, let’s enjoy the Latvian Philharmonic Chamber Orchestra rendition:

Gabriel Fauré’s Berceuse, Op. 16, was written as a stand-alone piece, originally for solo violin and piano, around 1879. It became immediately popular with countless violinists, but had an unintended consequence of pigeonholing Fauré as a “salon composer,” or one who wrote charming little pieces (waltzes, nocturnes, etc.) but not pieces worthy of being considered a major composer. The good news was that this piece caught the ear of a major music publisher, and that actually helped propel his compositional career. The violinist this time is Anne-Sophie Mutter.

Perhaps just as famous as his first Berceuse is the one with which Fauré begins his Dolly, Op. 56. There really was a Dolly, the nickname of the young daughter of the singer Emma Bardac, with whom Fauré had a long-time affair. This gentle lullaby is the first movement. Here are the sisters Katia and Marielle Labèque:

While by no means an exhaustive list, these pieces, strung together, should get any fussy baby, or wide-awake adult, into a calm, sleepy state. Sweet dreams.

CODA: Even the operetta dream team of Gilbert and Sullivan got into the lullaby act. In their show, Cox and Box, a lullaby figures prominently. Mr. Box sings a lovely lullaby tune … to bacon cooking in his skillet. I kid you not. Here’s tenor James Gilchrist singing “Hush’d is the bacon on the grid.”

Laura Carlo is the Morning Program Host for CRB.