Pilot watching a sleeping woman - Mortimer Wilson
Pilot watching a sleeping woman - M. Wilson
Before I started writing this post, I thought back over the lullabies we’ve already heard; I remember those of Brahms, Strauss, Schubert, Barber, Britten and Duparc. The first ones are as expected, a mother (a father in Schubert's song) rocks her child to sleep; Britten and Duparc's songs are adult songs, where a man watches over a sleeping woman; the cradle song we're listening today is also an adult one, Ruhe, Süßliebchen (Rest, my loved), the 9th song from Brahm's cycle Die schöne Magelone.

We find Peter and Magelone fleeing from Naples to Provence to get married. Magelone is the daughter of the king of Naples, who wants her to marry another noble; Peter is the son of the Count of Provence, who will bless their marriage. They have been riding the entire night and the following day at noon, Magelone asks to stop to take a rest. They find a little cosy shaded place, Peter unfolds his cloak on the ground, Magelone lies on it with her head on his lap and asks him to sing, to add his voice to the sound of tree leaves and the birds singing while she sleeps.

What should Peter do but sing? The song, the poem written by Tieck, has three stanzas; Peter loves the girl and is willing to protect her, he asks the trees, birds and the brook to watch over Magelone's sleep. Since all the verses go around the same idea, Brahms could have chosen an strophic structure, that's to say, the same music for the three stanzas, something common when the composer wants to enhance the traditional air of the song. However, our composer chose another option: he wrote three different stanzas but still, he made the song to sound strophic.

For the song to seem strophic, Brahms uses two elements that are repeated in all three stanzas, a kind of chorus. We find the first element in the voice; no matter how different is the vocal line during the first five verses of each stanza, the last three are always the same. The poem’s structure helps to do so in the first and second stanzas, which share the sixth verse, Schlafe, schlafe ein, and a similar metric in the three verses; the third stanza doesn't share those common elements but still, Brahms succeeds in using the same melody, a gorgeous melody that catches the listener's attention from the very first moment, because a short prelude anticipates it. In addition, this repeated melody reinforces the lullaby character of the piece, as well as the second element repeated by the piano: eight measures that make first interlude between verses and then postlude.

Let's pay attention now to the first five verses of each stanza. In the first one, both the voice and the piano are linked to a cradle song, from the beginning to the end; In the second one, the voice is still singing a lullaby while the accompaniment becomes restless. In the third one, suddenly, both voice and piano become more hectic; what was Langsam (slow) in the beginning of the score, is now Animato (lively). After hearing this change, we cannot help but ask ourselves why Peter is so upset at that particular moment; is it only because of the schöne Liebesphantasien (beautiful phantasies of love) and zarte Träume (tender dreams) announced by the brook? One hypothesis suggests that Brahms anticipates what Tieck writes after the song:

It seemed to him as though Magelone's breath grew laboured, so he loosened her garments a little, and her beautiful white breasts slipped out of her concealing robes. Peter was transfixed by their unspeakable beauty: he thought he was in heaven, and all his senses had been turned upside down; he could not stop feasting his eyes on them; he became intoxicated with their splendour. With every breath her delicate bosom rose and fell. The knight felt that he had never loved Magelone so much or been so happy as at that moment.

Brahms might have thought that although Peter promised to behave like a gentleman, the young man was not made of stone... Anyway, Peter's confusion lasts just a few verses before he catches his breath and ends tenderly his song.

I hope you enjoy this wonderful song and the version I chose to share. Our Peter is Christopher Maltman, accompanied by Graham Johnson.

And next week, we will celebrate the fourth anniversary of Liederabend!
Ruhe, Süßliebchen

Ruhe, Süßliebchen, im Schatten
Der grünen, dämmernden Nacht:
Es säuselt das Gras auf den Matten,
Es fächelt und kühlt dich der Schatten
Und treue Liebe wacht.
Schlafe, schlaf ein,
Leiser rauscht der Hain,
Ewig bin ich dein.

Schweigt, ihr versteckten Gesänge,
Und stört nicht die süßeste Ruh’!
Es lauschet der Vögel Gedränge,
Es ruhen die lauten Gesänge,
Schließ, Liebchen, dein Auge zu.
Schlafe, schlaf ein,
Im dämmernden Schein,
Ich will dein Wächter sein.

Murmelt fort, ihr Melodien,
Rausche nur, du stiller Bach.
Schöne Liebesphantasien
Sprechen in den Melodien,
Zarte Träume schwimmen nach.
Durch den flüsternden Hain
Schwärmen goldne Bienelein
Und summen zum Schlummer dich ein.

Rest, my love, in the shade
Of green, darkening night;
The grass rustles on the meadow,
The shadows fan and cool thee
And true love is awake.
Sleep, go to sleep!
Gently rustles the grove,
Eternally am I thine.

Hush, you hidden songs,
And disturb not her sweetest repose!
The flock of birds listens,
Stilled are their noisy songs.
Close thine eyes, my darling,
Sleep, go to sleep;
In the twilight
I will watch over thee.

Murmur on, you melodies,
Rush on, you quiet stream.
Lovely fantasies of love
do these melodies evoke:
Tender dreams swim after them.
Through the whispering grove
Swarm tiny golden bees
which hum thee to sleep.

  (translation by Emily Ezust)
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