More commonly known as Brahms' Lullaby, Wiegenlied: Guten Abend, gute Nacht is one of the world's most recognizable melodies. Published in 1868, it is dedicated to Brahms' friend Bertha Faber on the occasion of the birth of her second son. Brahms loved Faber in her youth, and the counter melody allegedly suggests a song she used sing to him. The lullaby was premiered in Vienna in 1869 by Louise Dustmann (voice) and Clara Schumann (piano).
Click here for a link to the score. After a brief piano introduction, the song consists of four phrases, one for each line of the text. Musically, the phrases may be represented as abcc'. The third and fourth lines of the text are the same, and the music duplicates that repitition but changes slightly the second time to bring the song to a closing cadence.
In the accompaniment and vocal phrases, the ascending and descending minor thirds suggest a rocking motion, as if rocking a baby to sleep. In the second phrase, a compelling need to resolve from the dominant chord to the tonic is delayed until the last measure while the melody outlines the dominant seventh chord creating more and more tension. In the third and fourth phrases, we move away for the first time from the tonic and dominant chords to the subdominant. This freshness is further emphasized by the octave leap in the voice. The piano continues the rocking motion from the first phrase until both the voice and piano cadence in descending motion to the tonic.
Compared to other pieces of the time, Verdi's Requiem for example, Brahms shows a high degree of restraint by writing such a simple tune with simple texture, melody, and harmony. In the heart of the Romantic period, it seems like orchestras were only getting larger and symphonic works more dramatic. Regardless, this mastery of melody is exacly what we expect from a composer like Brahms who wrote from his heart. The most distinctly Romantic feature of this piece is its sincerity towards the dedicatee. Musically speaking, the use of a folk-like melody is also distinctly Romantic.
I chose this piece because it reflects a different side of the Romantic period, yet it is probably the most well known tune from the time. Brahms cleverly simple writing transcends many aspects of temporal and cultural placement. This piece also proves to us that bigger is not always better, and this can be seen in Brahms' reaction to the piece being published. Brahms is quoted saying, "Why not make a new edition in a minor key for naughty or sick children? That would be still another way to move copies." The fact is, Brahms wrote the piece sincerely, and intended for it to remain close to the dedicatee.
Bonds, Mark Evans. A History of Music in Western Culture. 4th ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice-Hall, 2013.
Bozarth, George S. and Frisch, Walter. "Brahms, Johannes." Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. Oxford University Press, accessed April 30, 2014, http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/subscriber/article/grove/music/51879.