My First Lullaby Playlist

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Illustration by James MayhewThe day comes to an end: light fades, darkness comes, and it is time for little ones to go to bed. The mother or father sits by the cradle, rocking it gently from side to side and singing a quiet song. Eyes close and sleep descends. Another day is over.

This traditional scene has inspired many composers and musicians all over the world. Every country has lullabies, and classical composers have had direct experience of the lulling effect, remembered from childhood or felt as parents. They have written music to sing, to play, to hum. Sometimes it is music specifically for the bedside; sometimes it is to evoke the atmosphere in the concert hall; and sometimes it is to tell a story on the stage – in a ballet or an opera.

But the character of the music is unmistakeable: a warm melody based on a quietly rocking rhythm, safe and enveloping. Here is a collection of some of the best-known and most effective lullabies.

Johannes Brahms (1833–1897)

1. Wiegenlied: Guten Abend, gut’ Nacht (‘Cradle Song: Good Evening, Good Night’), Op. 49 No. 4

Keyword: Famous

This is perhaps the most famous lullaby of all. Wiegenlied means ‘lullaby’ or ‘cradle song’ in German, and Brahms wrote this song for his friend Bertha Faber to sing to her newly born son. It is best known as a piano piece, but this recording uses a full orchestra, the opening melody shared by the clarinet and the flute.

Performers: Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra; Peter Breiner

Taken from Naxos 8.553843


Felix Mendelssohn (1809–1847)

2. A Midsummer Night’s Dream: Notturno, Op. 61 No. 3

Keyword: Dream

It is the night of midsummer and two pairs of lovers – Hermia and Lysander, and Demetrius and Helena – have run away from their homes into the wood. They are tired and they lie down to sleep. All is quiet and still and dreamlike. (Little do they know that Puck, Oberon’s fairy servant, is soon going to come along and make mischief with his magic potion…)

Performers: Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra; Anthony Bramall

Taken from Naxos 8.554433


Arnold Bax (1883–1953)

3. Lullaby

Keyword: Ballerina

The English composer Arnold Bax wrote this soft piano piece for the Russian ballerina Tamara Karsarvina in 1920. It is a classic lullaby, with the rocking figure in the left hand setting up the platform for a pleasing English tune.

Performers: Ashley Wass, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.557769


Igor Stravinsky (1882–1971)

4. The Firebird: Lullaby

Keyword: Shimmering

Prince Ivan is being chased by magical creatures, but the Firebird protects him by making the creatures dance wildly. They become exhausted and fall into a deep sleep, even the magician Kashchei. The bassoon, the oboe, then all the string instruments make their eyelids heavy, oh so heavy…

Performers: BRT Philharmonic Orchestra; Alexander Rahbari

Taken from Naxos 8.550263


Robert Schumann (1810–1856)

5. Kinderszenen (‘Scenes of Childhood’), Op. 15: VII. Träumerei (‘Dreaming’)

Keyword: Simple

Much of Schumann’s piano music is difficult to play. But he purposely made these 13 Scenes from Childhood less demanding for the pianist. That said, to play with a simple grace is never as easy as it seems!

Performers: Jenő Jandó, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.550784


Gabriel Fauré (1845–1924)

6. Berceuse (‘Lullaby’), Op. 16

Keyword: Violin

Berceuseis the French word for ‘lullaby’, and in this work Gabriel Fauré lets the violin sing gracefully. This Berceuse shows him to be a composer with a particular gift for relaxed melody.

Performers: Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra; Keith Clark

Taken from Naxos 8.553843


Fryderyk Chopin (1810–1849)

7. Nocturne No. 8 in D flat major, Op. 27 No. 2

Keyword: Night-time

This Nocturne, one of 21 written by Chopin, sets the atmosphere of night – just as the word ‘nocturne’ suggests. The piano opens with a quiet feeling of descending darkness. Then, effortlessly, it takes the listener on a personal journey, dreamy for the most part but with a hint of passion and energy.

Performers: Idil Biret, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.554045


Edward Elgar (1857–1934)

8. Chanson de nuit (Song of Night’), Op. 15 No. 1

Keyword: Strings

Elgar originally wrote this charming sound picture as a violin piece for a friend, an amateur violinist from Worcester. But he later orchestrated it, giving full expression to the distinctive Elgarian and very English, lush string sound – once heard, never forgotten!

Performers: New Zealand Symphony Orchestra; James Judd

Taken from Naxos 8.557577


Edvard Grieg (1843–1907)

9. Lyric Pieces, Book 5, Op. 54: Notturno

Keyword: Warmth

The Norwegian composer and pianist Grieg had a flair for such gem-like pieces as this delicate Notturno. It was common to find a piano in the home in the late 19thcentury, and his sets of ‘Lyric Pieces’ were particularly welcomed by pianists. Here, as in many of them, he creates a particular mood and then sustains it with an engaging warmth.

Performers: Einar Steen-Nokleberg, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.553395


Antonín Dvořák (1841–1904)

10. Two Pieces, Op. posth. (B. 188): I. Lullaby

Keyword: Contrasts

This was one of the last pieces for solo piano that Dvořák wrote. It has a tender beginning, but you’re in for a shock if you get too relaxed: there is a bright and more challenging middle section that builds to a big climax before the tender section returns and calms everything down.

Performers: Stefan Veselka, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.557478


Claude Debussy (1862–1918)

11. Suite bergamasque: Clair de lune (arr. Alfred Reed)

Keyword: Moonlight

One of Debussy’s most loved and vivid pieces, Clair de lune first appeared as part of his Suite bergamasque for piano. It is just as evocative in this arrangement for orchestra, but now a variety of sounds can be heard, the flute and harp enriching the impressionistic palette.

Performers: Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra; Keith Clark

Taken from Naxos 8.553843


Pyotr Il’yich Tchaikovsky (1840–1893)

12. Album for the Young, Op. 39: No. 21. Sweet Dreams

Keywords: Lullaby lesson

This attractive piece is one of 24 that make up Album for the Young, written by Tchaikovsky ‘to make learning the piano more enjoyable’. It has a clear melody with a simple yet effective accompaniment. The melody switches from the right hand to the left hand, so mastering that alone is a good lesson for a young pianist!

Performers: Idil Biret, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.556785


Joseph Canteloube (1879–1957)

13. Chants d’Auvergne (‘Songs of the Auvergne’), Vol. 1: No. 4. Brezairola (‘Lullaby’)

Keyword: Folksong

Brezairola means ‘lullaby’ in Occitan, the language of a region in southern France that includes the Auvergne. This is the language of these folksongs set by Canteloube. They are direct, pleasing melodies. In this one, a mother is encouraging her infant to sleep: ‘Sleep… Come… Here it is… The baby is falling asleep.’ The instruments swirl sympathetically around the voice.

Performers: Véronique Gens, soprano; Orchestre National de Lille; Jean-Claude Casadesus

Taken from Naxos 8.557491


Felix Mendelssohn (1809–1847)

14. Songs Without Words: No. 36 in E major, Op. 67 No. 6: Lullaby

Keyword: Piano

Musical ideas came abundantly to Mendelssohn, and sometimes he felt that they could be no better expressed than in a concise ‘Song Without Words’. This lullaby is one of them, and although the composer himself did not assign the title (he disapproved of these piano pieces being given titles by the publisher) it aptly expresses the character of the music.

Performers: Péter Nagy, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.554055


Franz Schubert (1797–1828)

15. Wiegenlied (‘Cradle Song’), D. 948 (arr. for orchestra)

Keyword: Woodwind

The soft, dark tone of the clarinet and the silvery sound of the flute share the melody in this straight-forward, brief lullaby. If it works as it was designed to do, the child will be asleep in record time!

Performers: Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra; Peter Breiner

Taken from Naxos 8.556791


Fryderyk Chopin (1810–1849)

16. Berceuse (‘Lullaby’) in D flat major, Op. 57

Keyword: Tinkling

It was this very piece, written perhaps for the young daughter of a singer, that helped to build a tradition of lullabies in classical music, on the piano in particular. Liszt, a friend of Chopin’s, was among other composers who followed suit. It is an approachable, delicate tune, the tinkling in the right hand lightly decorated as the piece unfolds.

Performers: Idil Biret, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.550508


John Dowland (1563–1626)

17. Come, Heavy Sleep

Keyword: Tudor

The sound of the lute immediately evokes a different time: here, the world of the English Tudor court, where elegant poetry was given fresh wings in music. ‘Come, heavy sleep, the image of true death; And close up these my weary weeping eyes…’

Performers: Steven Rickards, countertenor; Dorothy Linell, lute

Taken from Naxos 8.553381


Claude Debussy (1862–1918)

18. Rêverie

Keyword: Dreamlike

Few works conjure up that state between wakefulness and sleep so impressionably as Debussy’s Rêverie. The composer wrote it in 1890 and the direction to the pianist – très doux et expressif (‘very mild and expressive’) – indicates how he himself intended this mellow, dreamlike state to be evoked.

Performers: François-Joël Thiollier, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.555800


Note writer: Nicolas Soames

Music selection: Celia Lister

‘My First’ series editor: Genevieve Helsby