Brahms’ Lullaby, the Wiegenlied


Genealogy is family, and family is parent and child, and what binds parent and child like a Wiegenlied?

A Wiege is a cradle, a lied is a song, and a Wiegenlied is a lullaby.

(Here’s the pronunciation in German: Wiegenlied)

You will recognize this lullaby tune, the Lullaby.

You might care for Anna-Sophie von Otter singing it with piano

or by the Vienna Boys Choir

Who wrote this simple, lovely piece?

The German composer Johannes Brahms took a lullaby poem of 1808 and set it to music in 1865, his famous calm and comforting Brahms’ Lullaby, here in German and a literal English translation

Guten Abend, gut' Nacht,

Good evening, good night, mit Rosen bedacht,

With roses covered, mit Näglein besteckt,

With cloves adorned, schlupf unter die Deck':

Slip under the covers. Morgen früh, wenn Gott will,

Tomorrow morning, if God wills, wirst du wieder geweckt.

you will wake once again. Guten Abend, gut' Nacht,

Good evening, good night. von Englein bewacht,

By angels watched, die zeigen im Traum

Who show you in your dream dir Christkindleins Baum:

the Christ-child's tree. schlaf nun selig und süss,

Sleep now blissfully and sweetly, schau im Traum 's Paradies.

see the paradise in your dream.

The song was originally in Plattdeutsch, or Low German, the rural dialect of the northern third of Germany:

Godn Abend gode Nacht, Good evening, good night

mit Rosen bedacht, with roses covered,

mit Negelken besteeken, with cloves adorned,

krup ünner de Deeken, creep under the covers.

Morgen frö wills God, Tomorrow morning, if God wills,

wöl wi uns wedder spreeken we’ll speak with each other again.

It has the same meaning as the High German, but with a very different pronunciation and somewhat different grammar, as well as the Platt krup’ (‘creep’), where High German has schlupf’ (‘to slip, slip in’).

Roses should form a sheltering roof over the child, aromatic cloves should add soothing scent, the blanket should warm- and closes with the warm-hearted hope that God will keep the child alive through to the morning.

In our modern age of low infant mortality, that is a jarring, jarring thought, but it was not many generations ago that a quarter of all children died in their first year, and another quarter died before adulthood.

Our German-born great-grandmother Bruhn crocheted just such a sentiment (in English, her adopted language) for our mother,

Now I lay me down to sleep

I pray thee Lord my soul to keep

If I should die before I wake

I pray thee Lord my soul to take.

That is a painful part of genealogy, when they list all the children that didn’t make it, or walking through cemeteries and seeing the many small stones the size of a bread loaf, that are for infants (though others are footstones and not separate graves). A thousand infections, swift or lingering, an accident, an invisible malady- we recently came across the account again of a collateral who, at age 9, was playing, and fell down, got up, and fell down again, never to rise again. An unseen heart condition dropped him so abruptly.

We can turn to the Rev. Eli Jenkin’s prayer of Dylan Thomas’ tales of rural Wales

Every morning, when I wake, Dear Lord, a little prayer I make, O please to keep Thy loving eye On all poor creatures born to die.

And every evening at sun-down I ask a blessing on the town, For whether we last the night or no I’m sure is always touch-and-go.

We are not wholly bad or good Who live our lives under Milk Wood, And Thou, I know, wilt be the first To see our best side, not our worst.

O let us see another day! Bless us this holy night, I pray And to the sun we all will bow And say, goodbye – but just for now!

Eli Jenkin’s Prayer, from Under Milk Wood ~Dylon Thomas

Let us be thankful for how many fewer we lose in our own age, and that we rise each morning to speak again.

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