“When the bough breaks, the cradle will fall”

John William Waterhouse, Sleep And His Half-Brother Death source: Wikicommons

Taking art songs as a basis, one must derive that cradling a baby is putting adults in a close to morbid state of mind. Schubert’s Wiegenlied, Britten’s cradle songs, folk-songs … they all seem to have a rather bitter edge to it. Only “Twinkle twinkle little star” shines a faint light into the chosen assortment of mishaps, catastrophes, and sudden death that is present in cradle songs.

To start with …

This is the song that caused me to think about the topic in the first place. It’s by Franz Schubert, and simply called “Cradle song,” — “Wiegenlied.” For the record: The grave addressed there is not literally a grave; but why would anyone choose this expression of all possibilities?

Franz Schubert, “Wiegenlied” D. 498, op. 98 No. 2

Schlafe, schlafe, holder süßer Knabe,
Leise wiegt dich deiner Mutter Hand;
Sanfte Ruhe, milde Labe
Bringt dir schwebend dieses Wiegenband.

Schlafe, schlafe in dem süßen Grabe,
Noch beschützt dich deiner Mutter Arm,
Alle Wünsche, alle Habe
Faßt sie lieben, alle liebwarm.

Schlafe, schlafe in der Flaumen Schoße,
Noch umtönt dich lauter Liebeston,
Eine Lilie, eine Rose,
Nach dem Schlafe werd’ sie dir zum Lohn.


Sleep, sleep, gracious, sweet boy,
softly rocked by your mother’s hand;
gentle rest, mild refreshment
brings you this floating cradle-strap.

Sleep, sleep in the sweet grave,
still protected by your mother’s arms;
all her desires, all her possessions
she holds lovingly, glowing with love.

Sleep, sleep in the downy bosom,
still notes of love grow around you;
a lily, a rose,
after sleep they will reward you.

Source for the translation: [x]

Why’s that? Theories

There are a few factors which contribute to it that humanity still exists. One of these is the ability of humans to be usually good at worst case assessments. “Don’t climb up there, or you’ll fall and break your neck!” may not be voiced positively, as demanded by modern pedagogues, but still it is what is going on in an average mother’s/father’s/caregiver’s head more than once a day. Sometimes, every couple of minutes, in my experience. There is hardly anything potentially lethal that children will not try to do while they grow up. (Even if you cover all the sockets, and put pointy objects out of a toddler’s reach.)

The ever-popular “How far can I stick a pencil up my nose?” is only one question, it seems, that everyone has to practically answer for themselves in the course of growing up. Of course, this makes sense in a way as well. If humans weren’t natural explorers, nothing new would ever be invented, and furthermore, if everyone listened to their parents, there would be no carpenters, and no mountaineers in the world.

So of course, combined with the extreme responsibility for a still quite helpless baby, it’s important to be conscious about what’s dangerous, and what would be the worst case. Simply put: Death. I heard someone say there is nothing worse than look into your child’s grave. “Es gibt nichts Schlimmeres, als dem eigenen Kind ins Grab schauen zu müssen.” The phrase stuck, even if I only heard it once in my life. There’s truth to it, of course. You trust that your child will survive you, it’s how things should be. And even that puts your own death into perspective, and makes it tangible, in my own experience. Before I had a child, of course I knew I would die, but I usually don’t regard myself as irreplaceable, so I didn’t grudge the fact per se. (Aging is a mean thing though.) However, now I know that at some point my daughter will (hopefully) survive me. She will see me die, or hear of my death, maybe cry, maybe not, but it will be a moment in her own life that will have some impact. There’s a before, and after.

To cut my ramblings short there — What I tried to make clear is that the care for a child easily brings up existential matters to one’s own thoughts; it doesn’t need a particularly morbid trait or a depressive mind. It’s the downside of consciousness about one’s own death, and of the consciousness of one’s responsibility.


When rocking a baby – on your arm or in a cradle, this is highly meditative by nature. It is an action that tends to attach you with deeper levels of feelings. Most start doing it unconsciously; very few are holding a baby absolutely still.  Your care and a part of your concentration is still devoted to the baby of course, which serves the exact function as the focus on the shiny object a hypnotist keeps in his hand. I heard the theory that the frequency at which you rock a baby, even the frequency you settle in when you are putting yourself comfortable in a rocking chair, is inherited. It is supposed to be close to the speed your mother walked at when she was pregnant. I don’t know if this is true, I doubt it — after all, the walking speed of pregnant women doesn’t differ so vastly that this effect would be easily traceable. It’s a nice idea though, and we know for a fact that we can remember the oddest things from a time when we were still in our mothers’ womb. We can’t see much then, but we can already hear. Language patterns, the tone of a voice, even musical pieces we hear then we tend to remember forever.

Only talking about me, I caught myself in so many situations since my daughter was born where I felt caught red-handed. I sang songs to her I only later remembered that my mother had sung to me. Pet names that seemed right, and more, the phrasing and little things I said unconsciously made me bite my tongue when I realized I sounded exactly like my mum. I even have her accent then, an accent I don’t use to that extent in everyday life, because she comes from a different part of Germany I have never even lived in. Well, it’s called mother-tongue for a reason.

Here is another example of a sweetly sad cradle song; this time, by Benjamin Britten.

“Cradle Song for Eleanor”

Sleep, my darling, sleep;
The pity of it all
Is all we compass if
We watch disaster fall.
Put off your twenty-odd
Encumbered years and creep
Into the only heaven,
The robbers’ cave of sleep.

The wild grass will whisper,
Lights of passing cars
Will streak across your dreams
And fumble at the stars;
Life will tap the window
Only too soon again,
Life will have her answer –
Do not ask her when.

When the winsome bubble
Shivers, when the bough
Breaks, will be the moment
But not here or now.
Sleep and, asleep, forget
The watchers on the wall
Awake all night who know
The pity of it all.”

 free sheet music: [x]

Comforting a baby

In my memory at last, my daughter didn’t cry very often. There are times when babies cry, for no apparent reason, hunger, and bowel-ache sorted out, and you can’t do much more than be there for them, and keep telling them — and also yourself — that things will be fine again.

Let me just repeat that what I wrote is not limited to mothers; most of it applies to fathers, foster parents, and everyone with a functioning ability of adapting another person’s perspective as well.

The following piece is morbid for another reason – Bajazet, the father who sings this, is about to die. He poisoned himself, for reasons that are complex, perceiving it as the only way out for him, and the only way to resolve the situation he found himself and his daughter caught in. Within his death-scene, celebrated before the eyes and ears of all the other characters, as well as the audience of the opera, of course, one tiny piece is the “Figlia mia.” It is often sung buy a woman, when this is made a standalone piece. Originally, though, it’s a father who sings it. It is heartbreaking, for too many reasons to count. He exposes his biggest weak spot that is also his strength, the love for his daughter — endlessly more poignant than in his aria “Forte e lieto a morte andrei” (Bravely and happily, I would go to my death, if I could conceal from my thoughts the great love I feel for my daughter.) The “Figlia mia” counts fully on the emotional impact of a cradle song. The listener is given a glimpse on how Bajazet has cradled his Asteria; we realize that he was the one who walked around with her at night when she had tummy-ache. And now, he is about to die, and tries to comfort her how he tried back then. The words are repeated over and over again, they don’t really convey any information, as his arias before.  (For me, Bajazet’s death scene as well as the cantata La Lucrezia are the two most perfect pieces that Händel ever wrote.)

I can’t embed dailymotion, so here’s the video link. Here Plácido Domingo sings it. He makes a great dad.


G. F. Händel, Tamerlano, Bajazet

“Figlia mia, non pianger no!”

Figlia mia, non pianger no!
Lascia allora uscire il pianto
quando morto io nol vedrò.


My daughter, don’t you cry!
Let out your cry
when I am dead, and cannot see it.

Hormones are not a laughing matter

Whether all other aspects go as well for foster parents, fathers, and anyone who attaches to a baby, one is exclusive to mothers, I think. Right after giving birth, and the first days and weeks after, you are so overflown with hormones that you’re basically an emotional mess. This is mainly due to the hormone oxytocin.  After giving birth, its levels are ridiculously high.

First of all, evolution made it so to simplify the bonding of mother and baby, but it has other effects as well. Oxytocin enhances your feelings, and their depth, but more, it simplifies instant empathy, and this effect is not limited to the empathy with your baby.

I remember this time well, and frankly, it is one of the most spectacular things I ever experienced. When my baby was born, it wasn’t such a great time for me in total, but still I wouldn’t miss it for nothing in the world, and in parts, because of this hormonal state. Never since I was a child I had felt so attached to my own feelings, which also influenced the way I experienced music — a highly emotional matter. Maybe attached is not quite the right word; victimized by would be nearer the mark. In all of life’s numbness where we are taught to be able to function, this made me feel young again; it made me remember how I felt about music as a young child. How some phrasing, e. g., of a violin concerto, irked me, and another delighted me, just the same way that putting your hand into a bowl of slime, or touching cotton candy would cause a response.

Some very strongly associate music and sounds with colours; for me as a child it was more related to touch, or temperature, but I guess that’s what tangible means. That I was allowed to experience music with this clarity again after giving birth, I consider as a gift. But back to the topic …

When the bough breaks

How frequent is sudden infant death syndrome again? It doesn’t matter how unlikely it is, the worst case is the one on top of one’s mind at times. Deep thoughts about life and death we tend to blot out in our everyday life, and it’s actually hard to find a conversational partner on those topics.

One thing should be mentioned as well; there are mothers who abandon their offspring, fathers and mothers who kill their babies, and when these cases end before court, they tend to remain a mystery to outsiders. Or, better said, people want to not understand, because they would put their own sanity in question if they conceded that up to some point they could align. (This is not the same as to approve, obviously.)

Another big topic there — in addition to the overwhelming responsibility, existential thoughts and an extraordinary hormonal state — is society. Motherhood is an issue that is solidly intertwined with all things social; it is in fact the one true power that women have, and the aim of patriarchy and all institutions and traditions derived from it, like monogamy, or our sexual morals, is to chain this power. The thought that a woman can or should decide for herself how, when, and from whom she wants to get pregnant still seems entirely new to large parts of the Western world even.

Motherhood is either idolized (The Virgin Mary), or belittled (mommy-brain). Not only men do the judging, by far, women do the rest, but most of it is the consequence of the patriarchal society we live in, as I see it.

A thrilling opera on the topic is Jenůfa by Leoš Janáček. This is the finale with the wonderful Anna Silja, Roberta Alexander, and Philippe Langridge.

I love this piece, and strangly, it gives me hope. From my perspective, in Janáček’s opera, the death of a child is very physical, of course, but also a symbol. A society who ends up killing its offspring is pretty fucked up, which in turn feeds the idea that things not only can get better — they have to. Maybe works like Jenůfa contributed their share to make this change happen.


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