May 09, 2014

Songs my mother taught me: Classical Music for Mother's Day

The most beautiful, nostalgic tunes to pay tribute to a special lady: Victoria de los Angeles, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and more.

Prokofiev, Webern, Bartók, Busoni, Fanny Mendelssohn and Nat King Cole are among the countless composers who received their first piano lessons from their mothers. (Percy Grainger was perhaps a little too attached to his.)

We pay loving tribute to inspiring women all around the world for Mother's Day (Sunday 11 May in Germany, the US and Australia, the 25th in France) with some of the finest classical music every written for and about mothers. That's Mozart's mum in the painting, by the way.

Mascagni: Mamma, quel vino è generoso from Cavalleria rusticana
Beniamino Gigli

Unsurprisingly, opera is full of tributes to the sweet Italian mammas who know how to serve a good meal — in this case, with some strong wine. In this touching aria from Mascagni’s 1890 blockbuster Cavalleria Rusticana, Turiddu begs his Mamma Lucia to look after his former love Santuzza if he doesn’t return from a pending duel. It wasn’t the only time the legendary tenor Beniamino Gigli sang about mothers:

Schumann: Frauenliebe und Leben
Janet Baker

Schumann relates the joys of motherhood from a woman’s perspective in this radiant lied from the song cycle Frauenliebe und leben (A Woman's Life and Love). In An meinem Herzen, an meiner Brust (At My Heart, At My Breast) a young mother rocks her newborn to sleep: “Only a mother knows alone what it is to love and be happy. / O how I pity then the man who cannot feel a mother's joy!”

Dvorák: Songs My Mother Taught Me (Als die alte Mutter)
Victoria de los Angeles

This yearning, lyrical piece from the Gypsy Melodies penned in 1880 for voice and piano is so popular that it has been played in wordless arrangements for violin (Fritz Kreisler), cello (Yo-Yo Ma) and trumpet (Tine Thing Helseth). This version is sung gloriously by soprano Victoria de los Angeles in German translation, but here's the wistful text in English:

Songs my mother taught me, In the days long vanished;
Seldom from her eyelids were the teardrops banished.
Now I teach my children, each melodious measure.
Oft the tears are flowing, oft they flow from my memory's treasure.

Richard Strauss: Muttertändelei
Elisabeth Schwarzkopf

A cheery, comic song in which a proud mother gushes about her adorable babe. In German, it’s quite the tongue-twister, too.


Brahms: Wiegenlied Op.49 No.4 (Lullaby)
Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau

The most recognisable, soothing piece of music to bond mother and infant in the land of nod. And what better voice to sooth and uplift than Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau’s? Part of the text of the 1868 Wiegenlied: Guten Abend, gute Nacht is drawn from the collection of German folk poems known as Des Knaben Wunderhorn later set by Mahler.