Johannes Brahms and the lullaby

May 11, 2020, 7:14 p.m.

“Life is short, though I keep this from my children.” — Maggie Smith, “Good Bones.” 

A lullaby, more than other forms of music, implies a specific performer and a specific audience. From Middle English “to lull,” the archetypical lullaby is sung gently by a mother or caretaker to a child, with the intent to soothe the infant, to placate her, to rock her to sleep. 

But since someone must care for the child and sing the lullaby to her, the lullaby has two valences: There is the expressive aspect, the part addressed to the child, but there is also the part left unsung. Anxieties and ambivalences harbored by the caretaker are inexpressible to the child — perhaps because there are no words to express their feelings, perhaps because the child could not understand the words anyhow.

In Brahm’s “Wiegenlied” (the famous lullaby that everyone and their cat recognizes), the first verse ends on a soothing cadence but the words are sung “Tomorrow morning, if God wills, / you will wake once again.” The child hears the soothing cadence, but only the parent knows and fears the threat of death behind the words. 

Brahms is a master of creating ambivalent and coexisting sentiments, and though he wrote only one work explicitly titled “lullaby” (“Wiegenlied above), many other of his works drip with the dual aspect of lullaby: soothing expression at one level and simmering worry or grief at another. The Intermezzo in E-flat major, Op 117, is prefaced by the following lines from the 17th century Scottish ballad “Lady Anne Bothwell’s Lament”: “Sleep softly, my child, sleep softly and well!/ It breaks my heart to see you weep.” 

The comforting and calming side of the piece is at the fore in the first section of the piece, but there are hints of worry in C minor chords that pass briefly by but hint at darkness under the surface. The middle section takes a sharp turn into unabated brooding, an aside of disturbing memories and anxieties: fears from the past and anxieties about the future, too much to place on the sweet countenance of an infant. 

When the main theme returns, its vulnerability and expressivity make the initial appearance seem positively stoic. The aim may still be to soothe, but we can hear a mother’s voice crack and break and gather itself up again, and we can hear the lullaby now imbued with memory. 

The childlike audience in these two pieces are implied, but in the second movement of the first piano concerto, Op. 15, there is a more explicit interplay. The orchestra begins the theme, a tender and comforting melody, and when it concludes 1 1/2 minutes later, the piano enters by echoing the same theme. 

In the hands of the pianist, however, the theme is thin, fledgling and bare of the rich resonances of the orchestra. If the orchestral entrance of the theme is a reassurance, the pianist’s theme is a poignantly unconvincing show of being reassured. In an interplay throughout the piece the piano gains strength and confidence, and 13 minutes in there is finally an assured display of hope, bounding in confident shimmering trills up from the lower registers to the higher

Lines of communication are more complex still in the second movement of the A major piano quartet, Op. 26. The main theme suggests a case of mutual and reciprocal reassurance: A lone voice played by the piano draws out a melody of soothing calm, as if working to ease the troubles of its compatriots.

At the same time, the remaining voices work to support and anticipate the theme in gentle murmurs rising and falling underneath it. At the end of the phrases, the violin or cello takes over the theme briefly, as if to let the theme in the piano catch an emotional breath. After a tumultuous development section, in the recapitulation of the theme the piano and the strings switch places, the strings taking up the main theme in rich unison and the piano providing a full-bodied support. All of these companions have grown stronger through the ordeal. 

With the lullaby something is always communicated and something else held back, and the power of these works of Brahms that I loosely characterize as “lullabies” derives largely from the interplay of what is expressed and what is withheld.

I wanted to include as a final example another work of Brahms: his Ballade in B major, Op. 10 no. 4. But on repeated listening I realized that this work is not a lullaby. There is no distinction between what is expressed and what is held back; rather the ballade is at once entirely transparent and entirely introspective. In the flowing lines there is no pretense or undercurrent of hidden sentiment. 

The sentiment of Brahms’ ballade is complex and multicolored, but it is all right there. In a sense the ballade is perhaps less interesting than a lullaby, but what it lacks in this regard it makes up for in emotional transparency. It is strikingly honest and unadulterated — its power not in ambivalence but in clarity. The rich layering of musical lines that characterizes much of Brahms’s other work — and that plays an important role in shaping the ambivalent moods of the pieces I’ve discussed above — is absent here. Instead, a single melody line dominates the piece, with broken chords rippling out from each melody note. The lines are limpid, and nothing is hidden, and when I play the piece I feel remarkably vulnerable, even when the serene resignation of the piece is not mine in the moment.  

The Intermezzo, Op. 117 No. 1 (“Sleep softly, my child”) is difficult to play in a different way. Though its expressivity is still deeply personal, it is not expressed unadulterated, as in the ballade. The expressivity of the lullaby is shaped by a layer of care and consolation, and hints at — but does not make explicit — its more turbulent moods. Though I feel less vulnerable playing it, I also feel a greater need for delicate restraint in expression on the piano. Something lurks under the surface, and I must keep it under control. The sentiments in a lullaby, as Brahms so masterfully illustrates, are the complex sentiments of care and consolation. The lullaby tells a lie by eliding the world’s darker corners. For the sake of the cared-for, one thing is expressed, another held back. Too clear-eyed a look at the world would be unbearable, so we keep it from our children. 

Contact Adrian Liu at adliu ‘at’

Adrian Liu '20 was Editor of Opinions in Volumes 257 and 259.

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