The stories behind the world’s great classical compositions.
Wiegenlied Op. 49, No. 4 or, as it is better known as “Brahms’ Lullaby”, is a composition that was created by the great German composer Johannes Brahms. Brahms is generally regarded as one of the greatest composers of all time and is often included in a trio called “the three Bs”…Beethoven, Bach and Brahms. The story behind his most beloved and well known work….”Wiegenlied Op. 49, No.4” is a tale that is partially a product of the history of the times in which it was written (the mid 1800s), partially a product of how Brahms was trained in music as a child prodigy and finally, it is partially the product of how Brahms viewed women and how those views impacted his relationships with them all throughout his life. “Wiegenlied Op. 49, No 4” is easily one of the most famous pieces of music the world has ever heard. It is known everywhere on the planet. The singing of it between parent and child is a universal sign of deep love between the two. However, there is a story to be told of how this lullaby came to be. It is a story that, once told, will change the way you sing and/or listen to Brahms Lullaby. So, sit back and relax and get ready for the story of the most famous lullaby ever created.
First of all, let’s talk about the title of this composition. In German, any composition that has “lied” on the end refers to a piece of music in which poetry/spoken word and music are being combined in an artistic manner. *(“Lied” rhymes with the English word, “seed”). The German word, “wiegen” roughly translates as “cradle”. Thus, the title “Wiegenlied” can be translated as “Cradle song”. Now that we have that out of the way, Brahms’ “cradle song” was written as a lullaby. In classical music, a lullaby is a genre of composition and, as such there are rules about how it is constructed and the emotions it conveys. This brings us to Brahms and the influence of how he was trained as a musician. When Brahms was a much younger man, he preferred composing music as opposed to performing it in public. However, many of his early compositions were viewed as possessing much potential but also possessing many correctable structural errors. So, when Brahms was tutored by seasoned classical composers, he was given a thorough grounding in the “proper” traditional structure of classical music as laid down by some of the early giants in the field such as Franz Listz and Josef Haydn. Johannes Brahms took to his lessons and quickly gained a reputation for creating works that were structurally sound but that used that solid musical structure in new and original ways. Thus, when it came time for Brahms to create his famous lullaby, he followed the traditional format of the genre but, true to his level of genius, he added a personal twist that elevated it into the realm of one of the all-time great classical works ever created.
The traditional format of a lullaby is that it has two halves and that each half expresses a deeply held but differing emotion. During the mid 1800s when Brahms wrote “Wiegenlied Op. 49, No.4”, lullabies were written primarily for females to sing. The reason for that was simply because the social mores of the time saw women as being the primary caregivers when it came to raising children. Thus, his lullaby was written for the female voice. In sticking to the traditional format for a lullaby, Brahms wrote the opening lines as an expression of love between a mother and her child.
Good evening. Good night.
With roses covered
With cloves adorned,
Slips under the covers.
The opening verse then concludes with the second half of this emotional exchange…the one that is filled with anxiety and fear.
Tomorrow morning, if God wills
You will wake once again.
When it comes to bedtime for babies, it was no different two hundred years ago than it is today in the sense that children need their sleep and mothers need their own restful time. However, what made it a much dicier and more precarious proposition back then was that the rates of infant mortality were much, much higher then than they are today. Back then, it was actually fairly common for babies to not wake up in the morning. So, for many mothers, the act of putting a child to bed at night also created a sense of danger. This meant that the act of singing a lullaby could possibly be the very last thing that many mothers would ever get to do with her baby. This emotion was revisited, night after night, for many months until the health of the baby became unquestioned.
The same sense of dread can be witnessed in the words of the famous children’s prayer, as can the format that sees the first half of the prayer being filled with love and the second half with anxiety:
Now I lay me down to sleep,
I pray the Lord my soul to keep.
If I die before I wake
I pray the Lord my soul to take.
So, Johannes Brahms wrote “Wiegenlied Op. 49, No.4” for the female voice because it was traditionally mothers who saw to the bedtime routines of their children. He followed the structural format of compositions written in the lullaby genre. But, because he was known for using tradition as a springboard to creative innovation, here is the part of the story in which the creation of a children’s lullaby becomes a love story for the ages. It is a story that draws upon Brahms’ view of women in society and is based upon how he interacted with the important women in his life as a child/teenager.
Johannes Brahms grew up in a house that featured a mother and a father and two other siblings. From everything I have read, he was raised and cared for properly, wanting for nothing out of the ordinary. However, one thing that was clear about his childhood family home was that his mother and father were not truly in love with each other. Theirs was a platonic marriage. Some would even go so far as to deem it a loveless marriage. So, for much of his formative years, Brahms grew up never seeing his parents engage in affectionate behaviour of any kind. Consequently, he grew up believing that all women were reserved and stand-offish. That was until his early teens when he was hired to play the piano in what turned out to be a brothel. The brothel was billed as a theatre so Brahms’ parents had agreed to allow him to perform there because they assumed it would be before the usual music loving audience. However, instead of being on a stage before an adoring crowd, Johannes Brahms found himself beside a stage while women danced for the pleasure of a male audience. In time, the dancers at the brothel took to their innocent young pianist and began to shower him with good natured affection. Their affection was so completely different from how Brahms had watched his mother interact with his father that he didn’t really know how to respond. Thus, as Brahms grew into adulthood, he did so believing that women were either emotionally cold and reclusive or else, very promiscuous. In short, Brahms was confused when it came time for his own first serious relationship.
That happened in his early twenties. He had begun composing cantatas for ensemble singing. In one of the choirs he was training, there stood a mezzo-soprano singer named Bertha Faber. In time, Bertha and Johannes began a friendship that extended beyond the confines of their choir practices. The two would share long walks and friendly dinners in public cafes. Soon, the sense arose that, perhaps, this could be more than simple companionship. But because Brahms didn’t really know how to go about exploring his feelings, Bertha took charge. On these walks she began finding quiet moments where they would stop and she would sing directly to him. One of the songs that she would sing was called “S’ Is Anderscht”. Here is where the story takes a magical turn. When you listen to “S’ is Anderscht”, you may detect some of the same notes and chords that are also present in Brahms’ Lullaby. That is no accident. Here is what happened. Even though Johannes Brahms felt genuine affection for Bertha Faber, his fear of commitment (based upon his parent’s chilly marriage) caused him to decide to break off their relationship after a number of years. Heartbroken, Brahms buried himself in his music. Faber, after a few years, met a new man and became married to him. A year or so after that, she gave birth to a son and then, a year later, was pregnant and about to give birth to a second child. It was while pregnant with her second child that Bertha was spotted by Brahms one day out in a public square. The sight of her instantly rekindled his feelings for her. They met and talked. Bertha brought him up to speed on the status of her life which, of course, included the fact that she was now married and was unavailable to Brahms. They parted shortly thereafter. They didn’t see each other again until one day just before she was to give birth. Brahms appeared before her with the completed lullaby in hand. What was special about this, beyond the fact that it was a thoughtful gesture, was that Brahms had taken the musical structure of the song Bertha used to sing to him when they were courting (“S’ Is Anderscht”) and embedded it within the musical structure of “Wiegenlied Op. 49, No.4” as a counter-melody. In this way, whenever Bertha sang the lullaby to her new son, she would be singing parts of the love song she once sang for Johannes Brahms back when they were young and in love. To place a cherry firmly on the top of the sundae that is this love story, when Bertha gave birth to her new son, she insisted he be called, “Johannes”.
So now, whenever you hear that well known melody that denotes the world’s most famous lullaby, I hope that you will hear it and feel it differently. “Wiegenlied Op. 49, No.4” is a musical composition that was built upon a foundation of the love that existed between a mother and her child, as well as the love that can exist between two soulmates. Brahms’ Lullaby is one of the world’s most popular pieces of music for a reason. That reason is love.
The link to the video for the composition, “Wiegenlied Op. 49, No. 4” can be found here.
The link to the video that explains the love story between Johannes Brahms and Bertha Faber better than I am able to can be found here.
The link to the official website for the Johannes Brahms Museum can be found here.
The link to classical music radio station, Classical 103.1, found right here in my very own hometown of Cobourg, Ontario, Canada can be found here.
***The header photo shows the beautiful city of Hamburg, Germany. This is where Johannes Brahms was born and where he fell in love with Bertha Faber. The link to the official website for the city of Hamburg, Germany can be found here.
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