Chopin’s Berceuse for piano begins with a simple arpeggio in the left hand, rising on the chord of D-flat. It stretches briefly to the dominant-seventh chord, then relaxes back to D-flat. The second bar repeats the first – in fact, for the remainder of the piece the left hand does nothing more than repeat this figure as a basso ostinato all the way through: a child is lying in the arms of her mother, and this is the sound of her breathing.
In the third bar, (on the linked video, this is minute 0:09) the mother begins to sing, mostly in regular quaver triples, in lilting 6-8 time – a little melodic fragment. The melody is circular in structure, slightly suggestive of the revolving-cylinder music-boxes that were a popular children’s toy in the nineteenth century. The melody follows the simple harmonies set by the ‘breathing’ in the left hand.
As the baby drifts off to sleep this melody undergoes a succession of variations over the ostinato bass, in a manner not unlike a Bach passacaglia. At first the melody expands and develops as, with eyes closed, the child’s mind enters an imaginative state where she is surrounded by sound alone. The melody is embellished with counter-melodies (Bar 7, Time 0:25) and syncopations, then cascading demi-semi-quavers (Bar 19, 1:15) and chromatic glissandi. Then, as she gradually drifts from consciousness to the dream-world, the melody begins to disintegrate: the rhythm becomes progressively more fluid and irregular, the tune migrates to the highest register of the piano, at the limits of human musical perception. At times (Bar 27, 1:48) it seems we can feel the tiny twitches and kicks the baby makes as her muscles relax. The melody is reduced to fleeting and barely coherent references, until all substance evaporates and nothing is left but a shimmering mirage.
Beginning in Bar 55 (3:46), there is a coda section. Harmonic motion, faint as it has been so far, is suspended altogether at this point: the arpeggio no longer reaches up to the dominant-seventh chord, but stays motionless on D-flat. The lilting rhythm also ceases. The mother looks down on the child, now asleep, and gently moves to place her in her cot. One final time, we hear the melody in close to its original form. Tranquillity reigns. The baby is asleep in her cot, and the scene ends.
It is an exquisite portrait of maternal love and intimacy.
But this interpretation may also be, quite possibly, a visual over-interpretation, one that the composer might have strongly objected to.
Programme music – instrumental music intended to call up specific visual or narrative images, and sometimes accompanied by a written script to aid the suggestions – was fashionable in Europe at the time Chopin wrote this piece, especially in France, where Chopin was then living. Berlioz’s masterpiece, the Symphonie Fantastique, with its vivid evocations of piping shepherds on hillsides, witches’ covens, and thunderstorms, had enjoyed a decade of immense popularity.
However Chopin himself never indulged in this fashion with his compositions. The closest he came to programme music was to give a piece a suggestive title, and even then, many of these suggestions are highly misleading. He wrote four pieces called Scherzi. Scherzo means ‘joke,’ and it is hard to imagine anything further removed from light-hearted frivolity than these epic and serious pieces.
In any case, often the suggestive title was added later, by a publisher, as a sales gimmick, in the same way Beethoven’s ‘Moonlight’ Sonata was named. That may have been the case with the Berceuse: Chopin’s first title for it was simply “Variantes.”
There is a supporting clue, however. The manuscript of the first sketch of the piece was in the possession of Pauline Viardot, a singer and pianist who was a close friend of Chopin and his partner George Sand, and who had a baby daughter at the time the piece was written. It appears that this is the mother and child for whom the piece was written. There is some speculation that the little girl was Chopin’s own daughter. Irrespective of whether or not that is true, I choose to believe that at some point, Chopin himself held the baby in his arms as she fell asleep.
The folk musics of many cultures have cradle-songs. And in the history of European painting there is a vast wealth of images of the Madonna and child, which hold up to worship that extraordinary intimacy between mother and child.
Yet this particular piece is unique: unlike any programme music, it suggests its images not by imitation of the sound (the way Berlioz evokes the image of a thunderstorm by rumbling on the timpani), but by purely musical means.
In the Berceuse, the sense of the baby’s breathing is created not by imitating the sound of a baby breathing, but by creating musically the sense of inhaling and exhaling, with rising and falling harmonic tension and resolution mimicking the phases of breathing. The baby’s drift into the dream-world likewise. The music evokes an explicit, conscious image entirely by sub-conscious means.
And in so doing it gives us – if we can accept that at least some of the images I have described are valid – an insight into some of the most basic mysteries of music: why do human beings universally make music? Why do we search for human meaning in rhythmic regularity and pattern? Why does one combination of sounds seem to create psychic tension, while another combination resolves that tension? And above all, why is it so very difficult to discuss these things in language? Why do they resist so doggedly being dragged into the light of conscious thought?
This piece offers tantalising clues to the answers for some of these questions. Conscious rhythm has its source in unconscious bodily rhythms, the repetitive actions involved in breathing, chewing, walking, sex. Conscious, controlled harmonic tension and resolution arises from unconscious muscular tension and relaxation. Music begins in that dream world that lies between the conscious and unconscious, where the brain is receiving impulses from the senses, but is not processing them into thoughts, the world before thought, before words.
The baby’s sense of the world recognises regularity and pattern, but there are no words; she had not yet acquired language. In contrast to painting, there is relatively little in European literature concerning the mother and child relationship that is such a preoccupation in painting – because this form of intimacy is not expressed in words. For those of us who, as adults, will only ever experience this relationship indirectly, through art, there are only pictures – and some fine music.