As long as there have been children, there have been lullabyes. Every country, every culture, every language has them. They are sung not only for the child, but for the singer as well; they comfort both. Lullabyes soothe us, console us, hearten us. They capture the quiet intimacy of adult and infant, express our devotion, convey hope for the future, and provide solace for life that is sometimes painful.
Perhaps because lullabyes are such an integral part of life, many great composers wrote
at least one lullabye whether they composed many other songs or not. Sometimes they were gifts (Puccini’s charming one was for the new-born son of a dear friend and Brahms’ famous song was for the birth of a son of an old friend from his women’s choir conducting days),
or were for a specific singer (like de Falla’s), or sometimes for sought-after commercial gain
(Foster was the first professional songwriter in the United States). Wagner hoped that a cele-brated singer would take up his Dors, mon enfant and get him some much-needed attention. Some, like Wagner, chose the genre early in their musical life (Gretchaninoff’s lovely Opus 1, written when he was a student, continues to be his most popular piece; Alpher’s was early in his output). Foster, MacDowell, and Ives set their own words; others chose poems that inspired them.
Soprano and composer Pauline Viardot wrote Berceuse over her good friend Chopin’s
Mazurka for piano, Op. 33 No. 3 (she composed songs for 14 mazurkas with Chopin playing the premieres). Knowing a good thing when he saw it, Rimsky-Korsakov kept his lullabye from his first opera, Maid of Pskov, through its many revisions; Russian singers took up the song immediately for concerts. Even adults are not forgotten: MacDowell’s song seems to be addressed to a blond lover and Obradors’ is sung by a woman remembering her mother’s comforting lullabye.
Whatever the reason for their creation, each of these songs is a masterpiece. Each immediately captures a mood, a moment in time: the exquisite tenderness of parenthood, the mystery of sleep, the innocence of childhood, the sadness that is a part of every life, the wonder and incredible joy that every parent feels, the calm stillness of a summer day.
The hallmark of a great song is its ability to tell a story. Each of these lullabyes does just that, beautifully.