Songs in Praise of Mom | CRB

Songs in Praise of Mom

May 4, 2021

To celebrate Mother’s Day, these are some of the most powerful musical expressions of the bonds between mother and child.

A while back my sister gave me a dish towel with the words "Sometimes I open my mouth and my mother comes out!" We had a good laugh. I shared pictures of it with many girlfriends, all of whom said the same thing: "That's me!"

It's funny, and lots of friends relate to the sentiment, but the truth is, I'd be lucky to be half the woman as my mom at any stage of her life. Educated as a librarian, my mother was also a Boston newspaper columnist, a published non-fiction writer and poet, a community leader, a true partner to my dad. But to me, she was just Mommy, the most loving and compassionate person I have ever known. Every one of my friends, from kindergarten through college, at some point said they wished she was their mom.

Classical composers have had soft spots in their hearts for their moms, too. In honor of Mother's Day, I want to share a few of my favorite classical pieces associated with mothers.

Antonin Dvořák's set of seven Gypsy Songs, Op. 55, written for a leading tenor of the day, were based on poems by a contemporary Czech poet, Adolf Heyduk. The 4th one, "Songs My Mother Taught Me," remains the most popular of the group. It was originally about a poet remembering the songs his mother taught him as he teaches them to his own children. The most common English translation begins:

"Songs my mother taught me in the days long vanished,
Seldom from her eyelids were the teardrops banished.
Now I teach my children each melodious measure,
Oft the tears are flowing,
Oft they flow from my memory's treasure..."

Male and female singers alike have recorded the piece, and although one of my favorite versions is an instrumental with Yo-Yo Ma and pianist Katherine Stott, I thought you should hear it as Dvořák imagined. Here's a lovely version with Slovenian soprano Ernestina Jost:

In Puccini's heartbreaking opera Suor Angelica, a woman, Sister Angelica, has been sent to live in a convent by her noble family for having a child out of wedlock. She has waited seven years for any news of her baby and is the picture of a broken heart when she learns finally that he died two years earlier. The song moves into a major key when she realizes he has become an angel. Here's the incomparable Renata Scotto (with English subtitles):

By all accounts Johannes Brahms was devastated when his beloved mother died in 1865. He began working on his German Requiem shortly after. While Brahms himself never publicly made the connection between the piece and his mother's passing, many musicologists say the timing is evidence enough. In the fifth movement a soprano sings a text based on Isaiah 66:13:

"And you now, therefore have sorrow, but I will see you again,
and your heart shall rejoice, and your joy no man taketh from you.
I will console you as one is consoled by his mother."

Jukka-Pekka Saraste conducts the Cologne Philharmonic with soprano Hannah-Elisabeth Müller:

Let's lighten the mood now!  Richard Strauss's Muttertändelei ("Mother's Talk") is a lighthearted piece in which a mom is delighted that her wonderful boy is hers and not someone else's.

“Just look at my pretty child!
With his golden tassels of hair,
Blue eyes, red cheeks,
Well, folks, do you have such a child?
No, folks, you don’t!”

Here’s Dame Kiri Te Kanawa as the proud Mama:

CODA: What would a Mother’s Day music list be without lullabies? Two of my favorites were by classical composers that my mother sang to me, her secret weapons to put her very awake, very vocal baby girl to sleep. I, in turn, sang them nightly to my very awake, very vocal baby boy.

Gershwin’s "Summertime" with the amazing Harolyn Blackwell ...

... and the Brahms Wiegenlied, or "Cradle Song," with Celine Dion:

Thanks, Mama.