Updated: May 15, 2022
Most of us recognize it immediately. We have had it sung to us as children. We have hummed it to our children. It is in music boxes, musical children's mobiles, and countless other recordings. It is known simply as Lullaby, Cradle Song, or sometimes referred to as Brahms' Lullaby. This seemingly simple piece of music is perhaps one of the most popular compositions of all time.
Often in the shadow of Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven, Johannes Brahms was one of the giants of German classical music. Brahms' music embodied the ideals of German romanticism. Romanticism focused on feelings, introspection, and reflection. It is characterized by restlessness, indefiniteness, and imperfection. In his music, Brahms honored the classicist forms of his predecessors but invoked the "Sturm and Drang", a profound depth of emotions. As a person, the composer has been described as irascible and prickly who could try the patience of even his closest friends. He was a man filled with irony and at times secretive and reserved. Yet he could be kind and generous, and he loved giving gifts. (He put effort and thought into his gifts and sought those gifts that suited perfectly the recipient.) It was as a gift that his most recognizable piece of music was composed.
Throughout his life, Brahms had a complicated relationship with women. He either had a hard time making commitments or he fell in love with women who were unattainable. (Clara Schumann, the wife of the composer Robert Schumann, being the best example.) During the years 1859 - 1862, he maintained roots in his native city of Hamburg. In Hamburg, he conducted a women's chorus which he helped organize. He became quite smitten with one of the singers, Bertha Porubsky, a pastor's daughter from Vienna who was visiting with her aunt. The pair carried on a correspondence romance through the aunt. Whether it was his fault or other circumstances, the love remained unrequited. When Bertha returned to Vienna, she eventually married Artur Faber, a successful businessman. In 1863, Brahms settled in Vienna as his home base when not touring. The Fabers would become his adopted family while living in the Austrian city. Artur acted as the composer's financial advisor, Brahms spent Christmas holidays with the family, and during those times he was away from the city, he relied on the Fabers to send him things or take care of business for him.
Bertha Faber gave birth to her second son in the summer of 1868. The boy was christened Johannes. Brahms heard the news while vacationing in Bonn, and he decided to compose a cradle song, Wiegenlied, for the Fabers as a gift. Written for solo voice and piano, Brahms sent an autographed copy of the work to the Fabers. With this he enclosed a letter:
"Frau Bertha will immediately see that I composed the cradle song yesterday specifically for your little one; she will also find it quite appropriate, as do I, that while she sings Hans to sleep, her husband sings to her and murmurs a love song.
By the way, Frau Bertha would do me a favor if at some point she could obtain me the music and words for the said love song ("Du meinst wohl, Du glaubst wohl"). It buzzes in my ear only somewhat approximately. You, however, have to write new verses for it, fitting ones!
My song, on the other hand, is equally suitable for girls as well as boys, and you needn't order a new one each time!"
Brahms was known to play small pranks. He loved jokes and making allusions that only one or two people would know. Often these were good-natured, but many times they were received as being crass, immature, and plain obnoxious. Even in a simple composition as the Wiegenlied, the composer manages to make private allusions that he knows only Bertha may catch onto. What we recognize as the lullaby is the main melody of the composition sung by the solo voice.
Then there is the part played by the piano which contains a counter-melody. It is this counter-melody that Brahms refers to in his letter as the part Artur could sing to his wife while she sang to her child. This counter-melody is based on an earlier work written in the 1840s by the composer Alexander Baumann. The original work was called "S'Is Anderscht", and it was a duet recounting the tale of a shepherd boy and his lover. (Ersatz folk music and folk tales were all the rage during the Romantic era. Brahms' own Hungarian Dances are in this same category.) This particular song had a special meaning to Brahms. It had been a favorite of Bertha's during her stay in Hamburg, and she would sing it to him. Brahms modified a song that reminded him of his former love for Bertha knowing that she would recognize it. But he feigns, in his letter, to not remembering the words, just so she can pick up on his cleverness. On top of this, he expresses this sentiment through the vehicle of Bertha's husband who Brahms urges to sing this counter-melody. Of course, making up new lyrics.
The actual words to the lullaby melody are from a collection of folk songs and folk poems titled "Des Knaben Wunderhorn" ("The Boy's Magic Horn"). Brahms was an avid reader, and this collection was one of his favorites as a young boy.
Guten Abend, gut' Nacht, mit Rosen bedacht, mit Näglein besteckt, schlupf' unter die Deck': Morgen früh, wenn Gott will, wirst du wieder geweckt.
Good evening, good night, With roses covered, With cloves adorned, Slip under the covers. Tomorrow morning, if God wills, you will wake once again.
The cradle song was published in November 1868 along with four other lieder or songs. The official title is Wiegenlied, Opus 49, No. 4. The first public performance was in Vienna on December 22, 1869. Clara Schumann played the piano part. Later on, Brahms added a second verse adapted from another poem, and he would use the melody as one of the themes to the first movement of his Second Symphony.
Little did Brahms realize how popular his song, created as a special gift for a close friend, would become. Even in his lifetime, the song spread in all sorts of arrangements. At one point, in typical Brahmsian fashion, he complained to his publisher: "Why not make a new edition in a minor key for naughty or sick children? That would be still another way to move copies." (Brahms wasn't opposed to the money. He simply disliked people tinkering with his work.)
The Wiegenlied has become part of our shared humanity, our own "folk song". In its simplicity, it represented the bourgeoisie ideals of motherhood, and it expressed the intimate bond between mother and child.
Johannes Brahms the man is difficult to pin down. He had a penchant for not sharing his inner self and did not leave behind a wealth of personal records. The impressions we have of him as a person are cobbled together from his interactions with those around him. Therefore, in many respects, we can only glimpse the surface of Brahms' character. This is by design. He wished his music to speak for him. And speak it does. It speaks eloquently with an intensity of passion that swings from darkness to uplifting hope.
My first introduction to Brahms was in high school orchestra where we played Brahms' Variations on a Theme by Haydn. These are among my favorite compositions: Symphony #1, Piano Concerto #1, Violin Concerto, and A German Requiem.
For further reading on Brahms the composer and Brahms the man:
Brahms: His Life and Work: Karl Geiringer
Johannes Brahms: A Biography: Jan Swafford
Johannes Brahms: Life and Letters: Sylvia Avins, et al (editors)