Top 8 Famous Lullabies for a Soothing Experience

Byvu lita

Jan 10, 2024

There are few songs more deeply ingrained in us than lullabies. They take us back to our earliest memories of childhood. For many new parents, they prompt an even more Pavlovian response. But which are the most famous lullabies of all? Here are our eight choices.

Favourite lullabies

Johannes Brahms: Wiegenlied, Op 49 No. 4

You’d be hard-pressed to avoid this song even if you wanted to. It has long been a fixture of the baby care product market, emanating from music boxes, crib mobiles, and stuffed toys all over the world. For me, it is synonymous with the long nights of early parenthood, and I bet I’m not alone. But while we may all know and either love or hate this song, fewer of us know how it came to be composed.

The story starts with a young woman named Bertha Porubsky, whom Johannes Brahms met in Hamburg, where she sang in a women’s chorus that he conducted. By all accounts, the composer was smitten with Porubsky, and the pair went on to have a long correspondence.

She ended up marrying someone else: the successful businessman Artur Faber. Still, Brahms stayed in touch, and on the birth of Bertha’s second son in 1868, he wrote her this piece for solo voice and piano, based on a melody that Bertha used to sing to him.

With it, he enclosed a letter: “Frau Bertha will immediately see that I composed the cradle song yesterday specifically for your little one; she will also find it quite appropriate, as do I, that while she sings Hans to sleep, her husband sings to her and murmurs a love song.’ But as the song spread around the world in different arrangements, Brahms, upset at the thought of having his work mangled, apparently complained to his publisher: ‘Why not make a new edition in a minor key for naughty or sick children? That would be still another way to move copies.’

Franz Schubert: Wiegenlied, D498, Op. 98, No. 2

For all its harmonic simplicity—it’s basically just an oscillation between the tonic and the dominant—this little piece ranks among the most touching of lullabies. One of the reasons for this is the song’s middle verse, which describes the cradle as a sweet grave. At a time when infant mortality was commonplace, it paid tribute to the fragility and brevity of life—a sentiment that seems all the more poignant when you consider that Schubert’s own little half brother died before his first birthday, only a few months after the supposed date of this song’s composition.

Robert Schumann: Wiegenliedchen, Op. 124, No. 6

Although this song came from a collection, the Albumblätter, Op124, that featured rejects and overspill from other works, it is far from a dud. Robert Schumann wrote it upon the birth of his second daughter in 1843, creating something full of delicacy and tenderness. Don’t be fooled by its surface simplicity: like many Schumann works, it requires the pianist to phrase like a vocalist while maintaining a relentless pattern of triplets and double-stemmed crotchets. Which is not easy.

Benjamin Britten: A Charm of Lullabies

As you might expect from Benjamin Britten, his 1947 collection of lullabies, based on texts by writers such as William Blake and Robert Burns, has an acidic edge. Nowhere is that more apparent than in the fourth song, ‘A Charm’, whose text by the 17th-century writer Thomas Randolph sardonically threatens the child with all sorts of torment if it doesn’t go to sleep.

Gustav Mahler: In diesem Wetter

Gustav Mahler had not yet lost any of his children when he wrote Kindertotenlieder, his collection of songs about the psychological endeavour of coping with children’s deaths. In fact, he was busy working on it only two weeks after the birth of his second child in 1904, much to the distress of his wife Alma, who feared that he was tempting fate.

Her fears proved prescient: three years after the work’s completion, the Mahlers’ daughter, Maria, died of scarlet fever, aged four. Mahler wrote in a letter: ‘I placed myself in the situation that a child of mine had died. When I really lost my daughter, I could not have written these songs any more.’

Described by the author Jens Malte Fischer as a ‘lullaby of endless tenderness’, the ending of the final song ‘in diesem Wetter’ (‘In this Weather’) is particularly heartbreaking. In a passage marked by Mahler as ‘langsam, die in Wiegenlied’ (‘as slowly as a lullaby’), the singer sings a song for the eternal rest of his child.

Felix Mendelssohn: Wiegenlied, Op. 67, No. 6

Felix Mendelssohn, apparently, resisted any attempts to interpret his Songs without Words too literally and objected when his friend Marc-André Souchay tried to put words to them. It’s not hard, however, to guess at the emotional content of this piece from his Op 67 collection, nicknamed the ‘Cradle Song’. This is an unequivocally cheerful lullaby—brisker than most—suggesting the happiness that Mendelssohn enjoyed as a husband and father. Which makes it all the more poignant that he died so tragically young—aged only 38—leaving behind five small children.

Richard Strauss: Wiegenlied, Op. 41, No. 1

This 1899 setting of the poet Richard Dehmel, who always seemed to bring out good things in Richard Strauss, is serene on the surface, with conventional harmonies gently lulling the child (and the audience) to sleep. But, as with much of Strauss, pain lurks just beneath the surface, and, in the middle verse, we get a cold blast of it. Luckily, peace is soon restored, and the song ends on a beatific, bell-like note.

Bernhard Flies: Wiegenlied, K350

The lines ‘Sleep, my little prince, fall asleep’ are attributed to Friedrich Wilhelm Gotter. But for all that, the gorgeous melody sounds a lot like a certain Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and was long thought to be by him; it is actually more likely to be the work of Bernhard Flies, an 18th-century German doctor of medicine and an amateur composer. Or it might have been by the German composer Johann Friedrich Anton Fleischmann. Either way, it would be good to know for sure, given that this is probably the most famous lullaby in the history of lullabies.

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