Brahms’ Other Lullabies

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Lullaby in D-flat major

Begun in the dulcet triple meter of his most renowned berceuse (the Wiegenlied, opus 94, #4), this misbegotten piece by Brahms veers astray when he eschews the conservative chromaticism of the traditional lullaby and opts for a more aggressive atonal approach. Eighth notes cluster in the upper registers, dissonantly burping out in random ostinato sprays, as Brahms, at wit’s end, tries to soothe “Big” Bertha Faber’s illegitimate infant while she goes out to settle a score with her pimp. When Bertha returns smelling of back-alley liaisons, Brahms crashes a dominant triad and ponders whether Chopin had to put up with this kind of crap — women stopping by and demanding he “come up with something to put the little guy out for a spell.” Brahms, exhausted, resolves to locate an alternative dating service and attempt some isometric muscle exercises.

Lullaby in C minor

This melancholy waltz composed at the home of Brahms’ beloved mentor, Robert Schumann, and his wife Clara (with whom, after the death of his mentor, Brahms had a torrid, yet fully clothed, love affair) soon dissolves into a pizzicato cacophony of tritones and grunts as Brahms contemplates a detour to the wine cellar to feed the cantankerous Schumann babe a spot of brandy. When Clara Schumann comes home early and finds Brahms giving her little angel thimble-shooters of Rémy Martin, the lullaby devolves into an all-out symphonic riot — complete with a sudden scherzo of crashing spoons and an odd chaconne-like war-dance around the piano. Clara, Brahms and the family dog collapse into a peculiar ménage on the floor, during which Brahms suffers multiple lacerations and a mild case of rabies. The piece closes with Brahms foaming at the mouth and urinating on his sheet music, the faint echo of middle C resonating throughout the boudoir. Bavarian parents begin to mutter that maybe Wagner would have been a better bet to tackle the lullaby contract.

Lullaby in B flat major

With a promising sonata-allegro introduction and enticing exposition, one wonders whether the transitional bridge immediately preceding the codetta was actually intended to sound like a feral hog falling down a flight of stairs — a musical conceit some attribute to Brahms’ struggles with the colic-ridden, three-toed orphan toddler lent to him by the Ministry of Child Welfare on which to practice. “She’s an outright monster,” Brahms complains. “I’m really at the end of my damned rope here.” What follows is arguably a manifestation of Brahms going a little nuts, as the composer rips apart the musical gestalt by slamming a nearby viola against the piano legs, creating a one-of-a-kind dynamic dissonance. Shortly after, the infant succumbs to a fit of the barking cough, consumed by croup. Brahms sets to work on a new codetta, this time practicing with another orphan, who, after the composer’s leitmotifs prove too much to bear, receives his reward after a particularly virulent attack of armpit thrush. The Ministry of Child Welfare ceases its orphans-on-loan initiative. There are murmurs of an investigation.

Lullaby in C sharp minor (disputed)

Brahms is in abject misery. He collapses on the couch in exhaustion and blows a languid stack of minor thirds on the flute he made by carving diatonic hole spacings in Schumann’s chamber pot. “You know, Clara, if more women would breast-feed, I wouldn’t have to come up with this heinous little jingle,” groans Brahms, between dangerous injections of morphine. “The pressure from you and the suits over in Berlin is crushing me. And the wretched angst of knowing that your heart is still with Robert!” “Robert wouldn’t give up like this,” says Clara, throwing Brahms into a psychotic episode that lasts until Clara brings a frying pan down on Brahms’ kneecaps. For the real enthusiast, the subsequent “clang” (augmented major seventh), while not in the sheet music, nevertheless offers a seductive moment of reflection as, during the rallentando, we imagine Brahms shuffling off to an orthopedist.

Lullaby in E major

The piece begins as an adagio, almost like a hymn. “Big” Bertha’s infinitely more attractive but slatternly sister Inga watches adoringly as her son Uder eases into sleep. The graceful introduction transitions into a quiet melody that halts dramatically as the child awakes with a start. “Oh, Inga,” says Brahms, “I’m just so tired. What is to be done!” “You know what, Johannes,” she hisses, “why don’t you take your worthless little ditties and go back to Vienna. I’ll just get Debussy over here. He knows how to treat a woman.” The consequent silence recalls a primal epoch, where silent amoebae sit contemplating their next move. Then, in 6/8 time, Brahms begins with a whisper, “Guten Abend, gut Nacht, mit Rosen bedacht.” The child sinks into a somnolent repose, then, in one final burst, roars with banshee enthusiasm, hurling a ball of sputum into Brahms’ eye and expiring without a whimper. Brahms, despondent, considers turning the lullaby project over to Wagner while going back to cranking out the formulaic, albeit decidedly less lethal, Hungarian dance tunes the lubberly public clamors so desperately for.

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