About this Recording
8.553843 - BERCEUSE - MUSIC OF PEACE AND CALM
English 

Berceuse

The cradle-song or lullaby is found in every civilisation. In its French romantic transmogrification as Berceuse it takes on a more formal existence. Here the simple cradle-song to lull a child to sleep becomes the careful product of art, with the title used by Chopin, Liszt and their successors. A general feature of the form, even in its natural and primitive state, is that it is imbued with a mood of maternal tenderness and has, as the French title suggests, a rocking rhythm. The German Wiegenlied has a similar connotation. In Christian tradition, of course, there are also associations with the Christ-child, so that a lullaby may sometimes take on a new significance, as in some Renaissance painting of the Madonna and Child.

In fact the Air from Johann Sebastian Bach’s Third Orchestral Suite lacks the rhythm of a cradle-song but certainly possesses its soporific quality. Written for strings, the melody is heard over a gently repetitive bass pattern. A nineteenth-century arrangement by the violinist August Wilhelmj earned it the popular name Air on the G String. Bach wrote the third of his four Orchestral Suites, between 1729 and 1731 in Leipzig, where he served from 1723 until his death in 1750 as Thomascantor, responsible for music in the principal city churches.

The titles chosen by the eccentric French composer Erik Satie for many of his works are characteristic enough. His Gymnopédies, a word that suggests the naked ritual games of Spartan boys in ancient Greece, are an example of this, since the music, with its gentle lilt, seems to have no bearing on the title. There is tranquilly undulating rhythm throughout, under the poignant and essentially simple melody, suggesting something statuesque about the games or their representation.

The Finnish-born composer Armas Järnefelt enjoyed a career as a conductor and composer in Sweden, eventually taking Swedish citizenship. His Berceuse, scored for small orchestra, is among his better known compositions.

Relatively little is known of the German amateur composer Bernhard Flies, who was probably born in Berlin about the year 1770. He was a doctor and wrote some piano pieces and some songs. Of the latter the lullaby Schlafe mein Prinzchen (Sleep, my little Prince) is the best known and was once attributed to Mozart.

Gabriel Fauré, who achieved a recognised place in the official world of French music in the 1890s, as Satie was beginning his strange career, wrote a very well-known Berceuse of his own, familiar in many arrangements. Less familiar is the Nocturne from his music for Shylock, a play based on the work of Shakespeare by Edmond Haraucourt staged in Paris in 1889.

The French viola-player and composer Benjamin Godard was slightly younger than Fauré, although the latter outlived him by nearly thirty years. His Berceuse is taken from his opera Jocelyn, based on a poem by Lamartine, and represents the only element in it that found any popular favour.

The Wiegenlied (Cradle-Song) by Johannes Brahms was written in 1868. It is based on a German folk-song text and must be the most widely known of all lullabies, with its gently lilting Guten Abend, gute Nacht to be heard on many a musical-box.

Claude Debussy’s Clair de lune (Moonlight) enjoyed a degree of popularity that the composer found embarrassing. It was written in 1890 as part of a set of pieces under the title Suite bergamasque. The reference is to the fin de siècle poetry of Verlaine, in a mood of nostalgic yearning for the world that has gone, the idealised period of Watteau and his contemporaries, now recalled by two lonely ghosts of the past, conversing in the moonlight in the deserted park of some château.

Franz Schubert’s Wiegenlied, Schlafe, schlafe, hoalder süßer Knabe (Sleep, sleep, lovely sweet child) was written in 1816. The simplicity of the words has suggested that, like the other songs of the same month of November, they should be attributed to Matthias Claudius, although the poem is not found among the published work of a writer known for his treatment of simple, even trivial subjects in simple language.

After a return to Erik Satie’s Gymnopédies, now the second of the set of three, a place is found for the piano transformation of the Berceuse into a concert piece, among other forms that Chopin similarly changed and developed. It is a relatively late work, completed in 1844, and is highly original in its presentation of what are, in fact, sixteen variations.

Sleep or, at least, day-dreams are suggested in the title of Robert Schumann’s Träumerei, one of his Scenes of Childhood written in 1838 and exemplifying his talent for the composition of short picture-pieces, here a picture of a feature of childhood rather than a piece for children. While not particularly demanding, the little pieces are intended rather as an adult’s view of a child’s world.

The Russian composer Pyotr Tchaikovsky modelled his own Album for the Young on a similar, later work by Schumann, written with his own children in mind. Tchaikovsky, of course, had no children but in writing his new Album met a ready and useful market. His Douce rêverie (Sweet Dreams) is No. 21 in a set of 24 easy pieces for children to play, written in 1878, as he began a new life of freedom from teaching, through sudden and unexpected patronage, and from the ties of a highly unsuitable marriage, which had foundered a few months after it had been contracted.

Igor Stravinsky was eleven when Tchaikovsky died. The son of a distinguished singer, he took lessons from Rimsky-Korsakov and soon after the latter’s death won a measure of fame in Paris with his music for Dyagilev’s ballet The Firebird, first staged in 1910. The Lullaby is danced by the Firebird, the magic creature through whose powers the evil Kashchey is defeated and the Prince and Princesses held captive released from his spell.

The final Pavane pour une infante défunte (Pavane for a Dead Princess) is music of nostalgic beauty. Maurice Ravel apparently chose the title after the work had been completed in its first version, for piano. The music is infused with a nostalgic yearning that is very much of the period of its composition, 1899. In 1910 Ravel orchestrated the Pavane for a ballet.

Keith Anderson


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