I meant to post this for Mother’s Day yesterday, but got delayed. Here it is now – dedicated to my wonderful mother who deserves a gold medal for having put up with me when I was a perpetually screaming baby who refused to sleep, ever. She has continued to be incredibly patient with me during the following 28 years, and I am eternally grateful to her.
5. “Sov du dyreste guten min” (Solveig’s lullaby) by Edvard Grieg
A lovely, tranquil lullaby. The Norwegian lyrics describe a mother holding her sleepy baby boy:
“Sleep, my most precious boy
I shall cradle you, I shall watch over you
The boy has been in his mother’s arms
The two have played together for all the life-long day
The boy has slumbered by his mother’s breast
All of the life-long day. God bless you, my joy!
The boy has been lying so close to my heart
All of the life-long day. Now he is so tired.
Sleep, my most precious boy.
I shall cradle you, I shall watch over you
The sunny, peaceful atmosphere of the song is contrasted by the dramatic context of the song: It actually isn’t sung by a mother to her sleepy infant song, but to Peer Gynt by Peer Gynt’s beloved and faithful Solveig, to whom Peer returns after having lived through a series of fantastic adventures and a close-call encounter with Satan himself. Peer Gynt is most likely dying while Solveig sings to him, although this is left ambigious by Henrik Ibsen in his original play.
4. “Mädel, mach’s Lädel zu!” from Wozzeck by Alban Berg
Perhaps one of the most unsettling lullabies ever, if it can even be categorized as a lullaby. Wozzeck’s wife Marie sings this song to her young son while admiring a piece of jewelry that her lover has given her:
“Girl, close the shutters
A gypsy lad is on the prowl
He will lead you off by the hand
To his far-off gypsy land”
The lullaby perfectly sums up the general feeling of fear and uncertainty that embues Büchner’s Woyzeck as well as Berg’s opera. This is exactly the kind of song haunted, doomed and just generally screwed-up Marie would sing to her (SPOILER ALERT!!1) soon-to-be orphaned son.
Also, it is an example of a 12-note aria that I actually know by heart. And by “an example of a”, I really mean “the only”. So.
3. “Sol deroppe” by Niels W. Gade / Peter Heise
The lyrics for this one was a poem written by Hans Christian Andersen as part of a series of songs about Agnete and the Merman. I have to say that I generally think that Andersen was kind of a clumsy poet – he was much, much better as a writer of short stories and fairy tales, which was of course the genre eventually brought him international acclaim.
But this song is really very lovely. It’s a lullaby, written for the character of Agnete, who is singing to one of the seven sons that she has had with the merman. A mer-child, if you will, but I’m not going to go into any speculations as to whether or not such a child would have gills or grow up to develop insane fish mating rituals because that would just totally spoil the romance. But the lyrics are really lovely, and I like how they subtely hint at the fact that Agnete is not completely at peace with her life under the sea – when soothing her child, she painstakingly compares every under-water phenomenon surrounding her to the phenomena of the world she used to live in on the shore:
The sun up there is sinking
Sleep, my child, and grow big and strong!
You shall ride on the wild mer-horse
The meadow grows so prettily beneath the wave
The whales with their broad fins
hover over you like great clouds
The sun and the moon shine through the water
You shall have both of them in your dreams
Hush-a-by! I bore you in pain
Be my joy forever, year by year
You have drunk Life by my heart
to my heart each of your tears will flow
Sleep, my child, I am sitting by your crib
Let me kiss your eyes shut.
When one day my eyes are closed
Who will be your mother then?
Original Danish lyrics here
Two different melodies exist for the song – one by Peter Heise and one by Niels W. Gade. I was unable to find an online recording of the song, but you can hear the Heise version here, and the Niels W. Gade version here. The gentle Heise melody works better as a lullaby, but the more sophisticaed version by Gade probably works better if sung as a lied, so I like them both.
2. “Dormi, amor mio” from Madame Butterfly by Puccini
I actually didn’t even think I liked Madame Butterfly until only last year. All that waiting…! And why would I even care about a painfully naive teenage girl and her asshat American faux husband? But then I saw it live in a theatre for the first time ever, and in a production that I really liked, and I was moved. I still think the main characters are absolute idiots, but I think that Puccini’s music more than makes up for this, beautiful as it is. My favourite part is the coro muto, but I also really like Cio-Cio San’s lullaby, sung to her aptly-named half-american toddler Sorrow:
Sweet, thou art sleeping,
Cradled on my heart;
Safe in God’s keeping,
While I must weep apart.
Around thy head the moonbeams dart:
Sleep, my beloved!
(Translation by R. H. Elkin via opera.stanford.edu)
Just like the earthly imagery mixed with that of the sea in Agnete’s lullaby, Puccini mixes the harmonies of Japanese folk songs with what appears to be religious lyrics of the western world when singing to her Japanese-American little boy, with whom she must soon (SPOILER ALERT!!!!1!) part forever. It never fails to make me sniffle.
1. “Bow thy corolla, thou bloom”by Carl Nielsen
We have already seen, in the Grieg lullaby, how sleep and death can be closely interwoven in a cradle song, and I think this is an important point. Any mother who has ever checked on her sleeping baby to see if it’s still breathing will recognise the fear of losing her child, and I wonder if the baby, too, doesn’t on some level fear that it will perish while sleeping? I struggled with insomnia from infancy all through my childhood; a stubborn, insistant insomnia that didn’t go away until I was in my teens and got overpowered by that obligatory adolescent fatigue and laziness. I later found out that severe childhood insomnia is a common trait among children who, like myself, were suffering while inside their mother’s womb due to a difficult pregnancy. These children fear sleep because they are afraid of letting go – they feel certain that they will die if they do.
This is why I’m so fond of this particular lullaby, in which the lyrics hint at the image of not just the cradling of a weary child, but the soothing of a person who is dying. This tendency becomes especially clear in the third stanza which, in an almost startling manner, features the image of a slumbering child as a comparison rather than as a description. The mention of the night drawing near coupled with the encouragement to humble prayer, too, always struck me as ominous, and the melody lingers somewhere ambigiously between the minor and the major, with a crescendo rising in the fifth to eighth bar of each stanza. Eventually, however, it’s the feeling of soothing, the prospect of peaceful sleep, that takes over, and my inner fearful, tired little infant loves this.
I know that an English translation of the song exists, but I have been unable to find it, so here it is in my own direct translation:
Bow thy corolla, thou bloom
Let it descend into the leaves
Await with closed petals
The blissful peace of night
The night, mild and quiet,
is drawing near – oh, bow and pray
Sleep beneath golden stars
Sleep yourself blessed and sound
Sleep like a child that is rocked
Gently in its mother’s arms
Awaking only partly to sigh
with a smile its mother’s name.