Ninna Nanna: Children\’s Lullabies

Monserrat Figueras

Ninna Nanna (Alia Vox AV 9826)

From the moment a baby is born, lullabies are a mother’s indispensable ally in soothing her child for whom everything in the big, wide world in new and frightening. The baby recognizes in the song his mother’s voice, her presence and her expression. The intimacy of the moment creates a space rich in ancestral symbols, in which words and music create a bond of pure emotion and truth. It is in this space that the child experiences his first dialogue, his first story, his first contact with the teachings of tradition, experience and culture, which over time build into an essential part of our collective memory.

Whoever sings a lullaby is moved by a desire to give of their very best, which in itself is an expression of love, and so the child begins to experience the essence of life.
–Monserrat Figueras, Nina Nanna artist’s introduction

Figueras’ words constitute one of the best distillations in pure emotional terms of the meaning and purpose of the children’s lullaby as a musical form.This is another extraordinary recording by Montserrat Figueras, the extraordinary Spanish vocalist who specializes in medieval music. Here she has produced–with an ensemble composed of most of the members of Hesperion XXI–an album of children’s lullabies from around the globe: Portugal, England, Greece, Morocco (Sephardic), Algeria (Berber), Estonia, Israel, Spain and others. The origins of the songs range from the 16th to the 21st centuries. Figueras’ voice is an amazing instrument, pure, strong, high and lively. On this album, her performance is front and center and the musicians play supporting roles, which is entirely appropriate for an album focusing on the pure simple melodies of the children’s lullaby.

In response to my glowing review of Hesperion XXI’s Secular Music of Christian and Jewish Spain: 1450-1550 (Virgin veritas x 2) published at Rootsworld, an academic expert in Sephardic music took me and Figueras to task for her “operatic” vocal style, which would have been far removed from the simple, unadorned folk performance style these songs would have originally enjoyed. No doubt this criticism may be true. But I am as interested in aesthetic beauty as I am in cultural authenticity. And Figueras’ performance is masterful and convincing (at least to me).

One of my favorite songs is Nani, Nani, a Berber lullaby from Algeria. Figueras uses her most sprightly vocal cadence to convey the lively melody of a song whose lyrics are quite mournful:

I met my brother, Sleep
And he asked me:
‘What do you carry on your back?’

The moon is very sad.
I asked her:
‘Where is happiness?’
And she answered:
‘Happiness is with others.’

I carried the moon on my back
And I walked and wept.
‘Moon, you are hungry,
You are sleepy,
All of nature shivers with cold.’

I met Sleep,
And he asked me
What I was carrying on my back.
I answered that I carried
Nothing but the moon.
And he said:
‘Rock her to sleep, rock her to sleep.’

The following Sephardic lullaby (from pre-1492 Spain, but first collected later in Morocco) is actually a song about marital infidelity cleverly disguised as a lullaby:

Lullaby, lullaby
Hush little child.
Mam’s little boy
Will grow up tall.

Go to sleep my sweetheart,
Sleep, apple of my eye.
Your daddy is coming
And his spirits are high.

Open up, good wife,
Open the door,
For I come home weary
From ploughing the fields.

I will not open up.
For you are not weary.
I know that you come
From another new love.

She is no more lovely
Nor worthier than I,
And the jewels that she wore
Are no better than mine.

This brings us to another element of the lullaby. The lyrics in an otherwise simple melodic form can take on great subtlety and complexity when they belie (as they do above) the simplicity of their musical accompaniment. Above, the mother begins with the conventional soothing words to her infant. But her last two verses reveal an unstable family relationship beset by infidelity. What is striking here is that the mother in the midst of lulling baby off to sleep is giving voice to her deepest insecurities, fears and sorrows; emotions that the child cannot begin to understand. In a way, the lullaby is the child’s introduction to the pain and complexity of adult life. It is the beginning of a life’s education. Joachim Steinheuer’s album notes comment that this lyric is an:

introspective monologue on the part of the singer as she evokes her own personal circumstances in the presence of a young child who does not yet have a command of language is a frequently recurring theme in the lullabies of many countries.

Another example of this is William Byrd’s Come, Pretty Babe:

Come, pretty baby, come, pretty babe,
Thy father’s shame, they mother’s grief:
Born as a doubt, to all our dole,
And to thyself unhappy chief:

Come lullaby, come lullaby,
And wrap thee warm.
Poor soul, thou think’st no creature harm,
Poor soul, thou thinks’t no creature harm.

Alas, here is a child surely born to a world of woe. Yet somehow the beautiful melody of the song will ease the pain and suffering to come.

A 19th century folk music collector quoted one particular Piedmont mother characterizing the lullaby thus:

each mother sings in her own way, guided by her memory and the inspiration of her own heart (a sa memoria, e cunforme na’ su coro).

Beautifully put.

One of the most beautiful melodies on this CD belongs to Arvo Part’s contemporary (2002) Christmas lullaby in which he sets Luke 2:2 to music. The melody is stately and gorgeous. The interplay among the musical accompanists (viola de gamba, psaltery, triple harp and santur) and Figueras is wonderful to behold. What is especially interesting about this song is that it was one of two specially commissioned by the album’s producers for inclusion on this record.

On reading the liner notes for the song Numi, Numi Yaldati (‘Sleep, Sleep My Child’), the Hebrew text has inexplicably been converted from its proper left-to-right direction to an incorrect right-to-left direction. The Hebrew text also completely omits the final verse (while the other translations of the same song do not). I don’t understand how a production which sought the authenticity of quoting the original Hebrew text could not muster enough skill to display the text properly in the liner notes. To understand how this appears to a Hebrew reader, imagine how English text would look if it was turned on its head to read left-to-write. It would read like gibberish.

But let no one say that this mistake detracts in any way from the supreme grandeur of Figueras’ musical accomplishment on this recording. If you enjoy lullabies, children’s music or just plain wonderful music, buy it.