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December 10: Joseph Dearest, Joseph Mine (and Cradle Song) December 11, 2010

Posted by contrapuntalplatypus in Advent Calendar of Carols, Christianity, Music.
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Joseph Dearest, Joseph Mine” is an old German Christmas cradle song (dating back to 1500 and possibly before) whose gentle swaying motion clearly mimics the motion of Mary rocking the newborn Christ Child. Though both the song and the lyrics are simple in themselves, Brahms used the melody to create one of his most beautiful works, “Geistliches Wiegenlied” (Sacred Lullaby) – which I had the wonderful opportunity to perform a few years ago with a chamber ensemble at the university where I studied piano.

The “Geistliches Wiegenlied” is paired in Op. 91 with another song; both are written for contralto, viola, and piano. I love the story of how these works were created:

The songs bear clear relationship to the composer’s friendship with Joachim, the great violinist, and his wife, Amalie, one of the leading contraltos of her day. In September 1864, in honour of the birth of the Joachims’ first-born child, Brahms dispatched an early version of the Sacred Lullaby, a setting of a poem by Emanuel Geibel. Then in 1884, in the wake of the violinist’s unsuccessful divorce proceedings against his wife, the composer revised the old song and composed for it a companion, Quelled Longing. Both songs were published together in 1884 as Brahms’ Op. 91, and this musical pairing can only be understood as a well-meaning effort to resolve the estrangement of his two dear friends – which brought to the public two of the greatest and most powerful expressions of his lyric muse.

Tender, lyrical, gently contrapuntal and approachable to all listeners, this piece is a must-listen. You can hear the “Joseph Dearest, Joseph Mine” melody in the viola at the beginning, and subtly woven throughout the texture of the song…just another example of Brahms’ amazing genius. The performers are Janet Baker (mezzo-soprano), Cecil Aronowitz (viola) and Andre Previn (piano).

– Contrapuntal Platypus

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