Classical Vocal and Piano Music About Mothers and Motherhood
A Celebration of Motherhood
Music in celebration or remembrance of mothers can be powerful as well as enjoyable. For many of us, the bond between mother and child is both strong and precious. Some classical music composers have created memorable music based on this bond.
Although some of the compositions mentioned below refer to sad events, they all honor the link between a mother and her child. The pieces would probably create a moving and enjoyable Mother's Day playlist for someone who likes classical music. They may be greatly appreciated by both moms and by people who are thinking of their mother on Mother's Day or at any other time of the year.
Songs My Mother Taught Me: Antonin Dvořák
"Songs My Mother Taught Me" was written in 1880 by Antonin Dvořák, a Czech composer who lived from 1841 to 1904. I know him best for his Symphony No. 9, often referred to as the New World Symphony, and for his Slavonic Dances. My father frequently played records of these pieces as I grew up.
"Songs My Mother Taught Me" is song number four in a cycle entitled Gypsy Songs. The lyrics of the seven songs in the cycle come from poems written by Adolf Heyduk, a Czech writer. The ones in song four describe the poet's memories of the songs learned from his mother. The woman seems to have had an unhappy life because she often cried. Now the poet is teaching his children the songs in loving memory of his mother and frequently cries himself as he does so.
The song is very popular today and is often sung by a soprano, although tenors perform the piece as well. In the video below, Anna Netrebko sings the song. She's an operatic soprano with dual Russian and Austrian citizenship. As many singers do, in her performance she displays the love that is mixed with sadness in the poet's memories of his mother.
The renditions of the compositions described in this article are ones that I and many other people enjoy. The pieces are performed by other artists as well, however.
A Mother's Grief: Edvard Grieg
Edward Grieg (1843-1907) was a Norwegian composer and pianist. He may be best known for his Peer Gynt suites. These began their life as incidental music to Henrik Ibsen's play of the same name. Grieg created many other compositions during his lifetime.
"A Mother's Grief" is sometimes said to have been written to express the grief of Grieg and his wife Nina after the death of their daughter Alexandra. Nina was both a pianist and a singer. Alexandra was the couple's only child. She died of meningitis in 1869 when she was just over a year old.
The song does express sadness at the death of a child. It seems unlikely that it's describing Alexandra's death, however, since it was first published in 1868 and refers to a boy's death. It's sad that a presumably fictional death was soon followed by a real-life one in Grieg's family.
The composition was originally created as a vocal piece with a piano accompaniment. Grieg later transcribed "A Mother's Grief" and other songs for the piano. By then Alexandra had died. The piano version of the song is played in the video below. The pianist is Håvard Gimse.
Muttertändelei: Richard Strauss
In contrast to the sadness of the Grieg piano piece, "Muttertändelei", or Mother Chatter, is a lighthearted composition performed by a singer with a jaunty piano accompaniment. In each verse, a mother proudly praises the features of her son and expresses her delight that the boy is her child and not someone else's. The music was written by Richard Strauss and the lyrics by Gottfried August Bürger.
Richard Strauss was a German composer who lived from 1864 to 1949. He's known today for his operas, tone poems, and songs. His wife Pauline was an opera singer. She had a reputation for being very outspoken and a little eccentric, but she and Richard seem to have had a happy marriage. They had one child. Pauline Strauss apparently liked the mother chatter song so much that she refused to give the score to another singer.
Edith Wiens sings the song in the video below. She's a Canadian soprano who has had an illustrious performance career in both lieder and opera. She currently teaches voice at the Juilliard School of music.
Just look at my pretty child!
With his golden tassels of hair,
Blue eyes, red cheeks!
Well folks, do you have such a child? –
No, folks, you don’t!— Oxford Leider (First verse of Muttertändelei)
A German Requiem: Johannes Brahms
A requiem is a musical composition in honor of someone who has died. In the Catholic church, it's the name of a special mass for the dead. Researchers believe that the person whose death stimulated the creation of Brahm's requiem—or at least its modification from an earlier, unfinished version—was his mother.
Johannes Brahms lived from 1833 to 1897. His mother died in February, 1865. It's known that her death affected her son deeply. He started (or restarted) working on the requiem shortly after the event. He apparently never admitted the connection between the loss of his mother and the music, however.
The earlier death of Robert Schumann in 1856 is also thought to have had a big effect on Brahms. The older man acted as a mentor for him with respect to musical matters. Brahms frequently sought his advice and was helped by both Robert and his wife Clara. The requiem may have been created in memory of both Schumann and Brahms' mother.
The Music of the Requiem
The full title of the requiem is "A German Requiem, to Words of the Holy Scriptures". The word "German" in the title was meant to indicate that the requiem is written in the language of the local people instead of in Latin. The composition is scored for a choir, a soprano soloist, a baritone soloist, and an orchestra.
The recording below is quite an old one. I chose it for the wonderful sound of Dame Kiri Te Kanawa's voice. She's a New Zealand singer who has won many awards. "Ihr habt nun Traurigkeit" is a famous section of the requiem that is sung by the soprano. The lyrics say that despite the sorrow of the person she is addressing, the singer will see them again. The soprano role is sometimes thought to symbolize Brahms' mother.
An Meinen Herzen, An Meiner Brust: Robert Schumann
"Frauen-Liebe und Lieben", or "A Woman's Love and Life", is based on a cycle of poems written by Adelbert von Chamisso. The poems and the songs describe a women's life as she meets a man, marries him, has a child, and eventually loses her husband to death.
Robert Schumann (1810-1856) set the poems in music in 1840. In the song below, the woman expresses her love for the baby that she is holding close to her heart and is nursing. My favourite rendition of the song on YouTube is the one by Edith Wiens, which is shown below. The photos in the video are the same as in the previous Edith Wiens video, but the most important part—the music—is different.
Lullaby: Johannes Brahms
The full name of this very popular tune is "Lullaby: Good Evening, Good Night". It's sometimes known as the cradle song. It has been sung to many babies in many different countries. Today multiple versions of the lyrics exist. In the original version, Brahms used lyrics that he obtained from a book of German folk poems. This version starts with the line "Guten Abend, gute Nacht". The traditional English version starts with "Lullaby and Good Night".
Brahms created the lullaby for his friend Bertha Faber, who was a choral singer. He had developed a friendship with her earlier, but by the time he wrote the lullaby she was married to someone else. The song was composed in 1868 to celebrate the birth of Faber's second child. The performer in the video below is a pianist known as CalikoKat.
The following video contains an orchestral version of the lullaby. An orchestral version of the song is not as inauthentic as it might seem. Brahms himself used a variation of the tune in one of his orchestral works.
What is your favorite musical performance in this article?
Giving a gift of suitable music in the form of a playlist can be a very meaningful way to honor a mother. Listening to appropriate music can be a wonderful way to celebrate motherhood. Music is a great art form that has many benefits, including its significant role in special events. It can also be a very enjoyable art for both musicians and listeners.
Facts about Antonin Dvořák from Classic FM
A biography of the composer from the Edvard Grieg Museum in Norway
Muttertändelei lyrics from Oxford Leider
Facts about Richard Strauss from Classic FM
Facts about "A German Requiem" from The Kennedy Center (the home of the National Symphony Orchestra and the Washington National Opera)
The life and music of Robert Schumann from NPR (National Public Radio)
Information about Brahm's Lullaby from Songfacts (a song database)
Questions & Answers
© 2018 Linda Crampton