La Berceuse

This mellow Sunday afternoon Mahlerman rocks us gently with some maternally musical lullabies…

As the poignant letters of Vincent van Gogh reveal, a mother fixation became one of his great obsessions toward the end of his short life. A couple of years before his death in 1890 he painted a series of portraits of Augustine Roulin, the wife of a friend, and the best of the series, La Berceuse, shows this plump mother holding a cord, the other end of which is attached to a child’s rocking cradle. Within days of painting this domestic scene, van Gogh began self-mutilation and was hospitalized, where his obsession continued into delirium, singing the lullaby that he imagined Augustine sang as she tugged on the cord.

From one work of art to another. The D flat major Berceuse by Frederick Chopin was written in 1844 and stands today as one of the supreme masterpieces in the piano catalogue. Seemingly quite simple for most of its short duration it is, in fact, a set of variations, played out over a gently rocking left hand modulation which endures throughout. There is some turbulence near the end, but it concludes much as it began, in quiet contemplation and, for the child, a drift into slumber. So delicate is this filigree that only a pianist with supreme control and touch can hope to plumb the depths. Here, the eccentric Austrian Friedrich Gulda does just that whilst showing more than a passing interest in a rather beautiful girl in the audience.

Here’s a treat. For many, the greatest ballet score by Igor Stravinsky is the 1911 Firebird with a later revision in 1919. It was the work that brought his name to the world, and preceded by a few years the riot in Paris following the shabby first performance of the Rite of Spring. When we think of his great genius we imagine first, in our mind’s ear, the spiky, asymmetric rhythms and pounding bass; but he could beguile us with quietude too, and here is the old wizard in London in the mid-60’s conducting the Berceuse that leads into the final peroration, the plaintive bassoon melody weaving quiet magic. Old hands will recognize the marvellous New Philharmonia and their great leader Hugh Bean, as well as perhaps one of our greatest horn players, Alan Civil. What a band they were!

‘Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin’. So began Listen with Mother on the Light Programme at a quarter to two, just before Woman’s Hour. The music, probably the first ‘serious’ music I ever heard, became a fixture in those grey, far-off days. It was, as I now know, the Berceuse from the Dolly Suite by the woefully under-appreciated Gabriel Faure. His delicate art has never been popular, even in France, and in our world of instant gratification I doubt that it ever will be, but it represents human feeling at its warmest, most civilized, most private. Very much his own man, the Impressionist revolution of Debussy and others passed him by completely, and he remained with the cool beauty of his own very personal style, particularly the near-perfection of his keyboard writing.

Although the Norwegian Edvard Grieg is best known for the Peer Gynt Suites and of course that old war-horse the A minor Piano Concerto, he was essentially a miniaturist, the complexitites of sonata form suiting him not at all – and when he tried big, the seams started to show. But he possessed a conspicuous gift for melody, and this is no better expressed than in the various sets of Lyric Pieces for piano. I was fortunate enough to hear the great Odessan Emil Gilels in the 60’s and his playing of Brahms has remained a glowing memory. Gilels stumbled upon these rarely heard pieces quite late in his life and made a famous recording of an almost complete set. He is, for me and countless others, the only pianist in the world of these apparently facile studies, and here, from the Opus 38 set, is the painfully brief Berceuse, framed by the beautiful Arietta from Opus 12 and Butterfly (for Nige) from Opus 43. This group ends with the bleak Solitary Traveller.

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About Author Profile: Mahlerman

Mahlerman's life was shaped by his single mother, who never let complete ignorance of a subject get in the way of having strong opinions about it. Facing retirement after a life in what used to be called 'trade', and having a character that consists mainly of defects, he spends his moments of idleness trying to correct them, one by one.

9 thoughts on “La Berceuse

    April 1, 2012 at 16:29

    Excellent stuff once again, Mahlerman. Who is that woman in the Gulda piece? Placed for his sightline and attracting the slightly creepy attentions of the Director.

    April 1, 2012 at 16:53

    Beautiful, thank you. I’ve thought for a while that I should listen to Grieg’s piano pieces (I really like some of his songs) and now I have a way in.

    April 1, 2012 at 17:58

    Lovely to hear the Listen with Mother theme tune again. Looks like the bustier-clad beauty in the first clip is sitting too comfortably – perhaps her appearance is staged?

    John Halliwell
    April 1, 2012 at 18:00

    Wonderful, MM. I wish the post were twice as long.

    I well remember the New Philharmonia; in fact, I remember when the Orchestra was simply The Philharmonia, and widely recognised as the finest in the World. I first came across the name in the local fleapit in the early fifties when it seemed the music to every British film was played by The Philharmonia and conducted by Muir Mathieson, who, I came to imagine, must have been at least 85. (He was about 40). As you point out, MM, the Orchestra boasted magnificent players throughout. I recall the reviewer on BBC’s Building a Library – about fifteen years ago – selecting Hugh Bean’s recording of The Lark Ascending as the finest available recording. The video clip you show of The Firebird clearly demonstrates the brilliance of the orchestra under the baton of the great Russian. I still find it heartwarming when I read Stephen Pettitt’s account of that concert (‘Philharmonia Orchestra – A Record of Achievement 1945 to 1985’):

    ‘Stravinsky had the ability to transmit his intentions with the smallest of gestures and with the added advantage of a very clearly defined beat. The New Philharmonia’s reaction was a mixture of affection and admiration. He seemed to judge the speeds so exactly right and gave the music great flexibility and warmth. The audience responded, too, and could only be persuaded to go when the composer appeared on the platform in his overcoat.’

    April 1, 2012 at 22:03

    I am delighted to have happened upon this site and in particular this article on the berceuse. Thank you Mahlerman. I’m so looking forward to your other posts.

    • Gaw
      April 5, 2012 at 11:48

      Hi Zelie. If you click on Mahlerman’s name at the top right hand corner of this post you’ll find his archive. For me it’s been a very enjoyable, and often off-beat, musical education. I’m not sure there’s anything quite like it anywhere.

    April 2, 2012 at 15:35

    Well Recusant, the fact is that the short clip I included came at the very end of a 40 minute film of a concert in Munich under the rather grim title on the credits at the end ‘Chopin pour ma douce’, and I guess the girl was posing as his ‘sweetheart’. The cover title showed a red rose resting on a keyboard. Gulda remained a bit odd, sartorially and in his behaviour, until the very end of his life. He idolized Mozart, and wanted to die on Wolfgang’s birthday, January 27th; and on that date in 2000 he popped his clogs via a heart attack. You couldn’t make it up!
    If I had included all my favourites JH, the post would have been twice as long, perhaps even three times.
    Glad you enjoyed the post Zelie – and welcome to dabbler-world.

      April 3, 2012 at 11:05

      “wanted to die on Wolfgang’s birthday, January 27th; and on that date in 2000 he popped his clogs via a heart attack”.

      My God. You really couldn’t make it up.

      Reading that about the woman’s role makes it even creepier.

        April 3, 2012 at 13:17

        And didn’t Gulda also announce his death prematurely, the year before he died, so he could find out what the obiturists were going to say about him?

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