Editor, McLerran Journal
Assistant Band Director, Center ISD, TX
Sleep; something that all ambulatory beings require to live. Sleep is precious, refreshing, necessary, and also one of the many elements of life that binds us together as a species. Nearly every culture across humankind has a form of lullaby to soothe sleepless little ones. In a time of constant sharing, a lullaby is an intimate moment shared only between guardian and child. These precious melodies are often passed down from generation to generation and carry an immense amount of sentimental value. One such lullaby, Cradle Song by Johannes Brahms, has been a bedtime staple around the globe for more than a century.
Who was Johannes Brahms?
Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) was one of the most successful classical composers of the 19th century. In his lifetime, he completed primarily symphonies, concerti, chamber music, piano works, choral works, and more than two hundred songs (Simpson). Brahms studied with internationally recognized teachers like F.W. Cossel, Eduard Marxsen, Joseph Joachim, and Robert Schumann (Simpson). What separated Brahms from his contemporaries was his decision to continue composing in the style of the Classical Era (for example, incorporating the clarinet), while composers like Franz Liszt and Richard Wagner pushed the art into the Romantic Era, creating the “New German School” of composition. Brahms, and his mentor Schumann, believed that this new “indulgent” style did a disservice to the “genius of composers” like Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven (Biography). Brahms’ most enduring works are A German Requiem (1867), Cradle Song (1868), Hungarian Dances (1869), and Symphony No.1 in C minor, op.68 (1876).
Cradle Song (1868)
An interesting point of consideration for fans of Brahms’ Cradle Song is that it was written for someone else’s family since there is no record of the composer ever marrying or fathering any children. This is not surprising since, despite Brahms being represented primarily as an old bearded man, he actually had quite the reputation of mischief in his youth (Britannica). This is most apparent in works like O die Frauen (1868), in which Brahms quotes poet Georg Friedrich Daumer; “O women, o women, how they delight the heart! I should have long since turned a monk, where it not for women! (Stokes).” This work, written in the same year as his Cradle Song, perfectly exhibits the internal struggle that young Brahms faced as one love affair after another failed. The question remains, then, for whom was this lullaby written?
Perhaps the most obvious answer to this mystery would be that the Cradle Song was composed for the children of Robert and Clara Schumann, two of Brahms’ dearest friends. From 1853 to 1857, the Schumanns welcomed Brahms into their family home and mentored him in both composition and piano. Even after Robert’s passing in 1856, Brahms remained in close contact with Clara and frequently helped her with the children. This closeness naturally generated rumors that the two were in love, although there is no evidence of the relationship ever developing into more than a student-teacher friendship. In 1857, Brahms left the Schumann home and accepted positions in the courts of Detmold and Gottingen before settling in Hamburg in 1859 (Simpson). The two composers remained in contact through letters, but the Cradle Song was not dedicated to the Schumann children. Brahms did compose Vier ernste Gesange, however, for Clara Schumann in the year of her death, 1896 (Simpson).
Next, it is important to consider one of Brahms’ greatest loves, vocalist and composer Agathe von Siebold as the potential inspiration for the Cradle Song. According to Robert Simpson of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, Brahms’ affair with Siebold was perhaps the closest the composer ever got to marriage. The two were engaged for a brief period of time in the fall 1858, but Brahms’ fear of commitment and the very public failure of his First Piano Concerto (1859), culminated in the engagement being called off the following January (Clive). Their engagement rings are still in possession of Agathe’s descendants and descendants of Brahms’ dear friends, the Fellinger family (Clive). From 1863-65, Siebold worked as a governess in Ireland and later married Dr. Carl Schutte in 1868, with whom she would have five children (Clive). One has to consider whether this Cradle Song, written the same year that Agathe married, could have been intended for either the Irish children she tutored or for her own (future) children. Although Brahms and Siebold never reunited, he frequently would work her name (as well as Clara’s) into his compositions, in the coded style of Robert Schumann; his love for her clearly never diminished despite their distance. There is, however, no evidence of the Cradle Song specifically being inspired by or dedicated to Ms. Siebold.
According to Heather Platt, in her book Johannes Brahms, the lullaby was actually dedicated to the son of Arthur and Bertha Faber of Hamburg. Brahms had the opportunity to work with Mrs. Faber during his time as conductor of the Hamburg Women’s Chorus, of which she was a member (Platt). During this period, Brahms composed several songs for the chorus including the enduring Choruses for female voices, 2 horns & harp, op.17 (1860). Although there is no evidence of Brahms or Mrs. Faber ever engaging in an actual affair, it should be noted that the Cradle Song employs text from the famous poem Des Knaben Wunderhorn (versions by Uhland and Fallersleben); widely considered a love song (Platt). Brahms’ feelings about Bertha are confirmed in a letter to Arthur Faber about the piece where he writes, “…she will find quite in order […] that while singing Hans [her son] to sleep, a love song is being sung to her (Platt).” With this letter, the mystery of Brahms’ lullaby is finally solved.
Although Johannes Brahms never actually committed himself to a single woman or fathered any children, his Cradle Song remains present on the international stage nearly on hundred and fifty years later. Its success, along with that of Brahms’ most famous work A German Requiem (1867), served to elevate the composer to the ranks of other great German composers like his idols Beethoven and Mozart.
Simpson, Robert. (2018). Johannes Brahms. Encyclopaedia Britannica. Encyclopaedia
Britannica, Inc. Web. 20 July, 2018. <https://www.britannica.com/biography/Johannes-
Editors. (2014). Johannes Brahms Biography. Biography. A&E Television Networks. Web. 20 July,
Staff, Rovi. (2018). Johannes Brahms. All Music. Rhythm One Group. Web. 20 July, 2018.
Stokes, Richard. (2005). The Book of Lieder. Oxford Lieder. Oxford Lieder, Ltd. England. Web. 20
July, 2018. <https://www.oxfordlieder.co.uk/song/1057>
Clive, Peter. (2006). Brahms and His World: A Biographical Dictionary. Scarecrow Press, Inc.
Lanham, Maryland. pp.416-420. Web. 21 July, 2018.
Platt, Heather. (2011). Johannes Brahms: A Research and Information Guide. Second Edition.
Routledge Music Bibliographies. New York and London. pp.340. Web. 21 July, 2018.