In my last post, I detailed the inspiration behind “Lullaby,” a choral piece that was written for my son, Luca. In this post, I will provide some insight and analysis into the piece. The first challenge of Lullaby was its structure. The poem by Christina Rossetti is very simple and would have made for a very short piece if kept in its original form. Like all composers that have fallen in love with a short text, my solution was easy: repetition! I divided the poem into two stanzas and organized the material from each stanza into a verse:
1. Lullaby, oh, lullaby!
2 Flowers are closed and lambs are sleeping;
3 Lullaby, oh, lullaby!
4 Stars are up, the moon is peeping;
5 Lullaby, oh, lullaby!
6 While the birds are silence keeping,
7 (Lullaby, oh, lullaby!)
8 Sleep, my baby, fall a-sleeping,
9 Lullaby, oh, lullaby!
The first verse is comprised of lines 1-4 followed by a repetition of lines 2 and 4. Similarly, the second verse is comprised of lines 5-8 followed by a repetition of lines 6 and 8. In order to give the piece the singable, memorable quality that I had in mind, I wanted another statement of the theme so I added a third verse in which the choir hums the first two lines of the verse and then sings lines 7 and 8. The piece ends with a Coda that repeats line 9 several times.
For weeks, I tweaked the harmonies and added an optional piano accompaniment but the piece felt incomplete. The repetition throughout the verses made the melody very memorable but there was nothing to break up the three back-to-back verses. Finally, it dawned on me that I could add a short bridge between the second and third verses. Moreover, I had neglected line 9 at the end of the second verse and it made perfect sense to include this oft-repeated text at this moment. There isn’t much to the Bridge, but it adds so much!
After adding the Bridge, there was still an issue. I introduced this new theme for 4 measures and then it never reappeared again in the piece. I believe that every melodic element of a composition should have a purpose and found the random nature of this theme to be unacceptable. I considered rewriting the Bridge or adding more material elsewhere in the piece, but then I realized that the Bridge theme could fit perfectly in the Coda! With the adjustment of a few notes, these themes fit together to form the subject of the Coda.
One of the most interesting examples of symbolism in the piece is contained in the cadences that end each phrase. Since the purpose of a lullaby is to help a baby to fall asleep, this piece musically demonstrates whether the lullaby is working. New parents quickly learn to hold their breath every time that their baby stirs, waiting to see if he is awake or asleep. The performers experience this same anticipation as they approach the end of a phrase; however, the use of half cadences and deceptive cadences throughout the piece represent that the baby is still awake and that our job is not complete. Each pause at the end of an unresolved cadence compounds our desire to help this baby fall asleep. The majority of Western music includes authentic cadences throughout a piece to create moments of arrival and relaxation. In the writing of Lullaby, I took inspiration from Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings and avoided strong cadences so that we experience the restlessness of a parent with an uncooperative baby. Lullaby does not give us an authentic cadence until the final phrase of the piece, which is when the baby has fallen asleep and the song can end.
There is also symbolism contained in the dissonance and consonance throughout the piece. These moments of temporary dissonance represent the tension of a fussy baby. This tension quickly gives way to consonance as the baby relaxes into a sleepy state. This also applies to the parents!
My favorite symbolism can be found in this song’s word painting. There are some obvious examples such as the melody ascending on “stars are up,” the decrescendo on “fall asleeping,” and the collective movement of the women’s voices on “While the birds.”
However, my favorite moment is a very personal one. Toward the end of the piece, there is a moment where I imagine myself looking down at my baby and feeling overcome with love. As I sing this line of the song, my love grows into a fast crescendo from mp to forte combined with a fermata that creates the climax of the piece. Suddenly, I have a “new father” moment where the voice in my head says “Shh, don’t wake the baby!”
Lullaby is a complex choral piece that masquerades as a simple song. The singable melody was the perfect way to calm Luca at 5:45 this morning but I hope that peeling away the layers has helped to reveal the greater meaning in each line of this piece.