The odds are you're probably familiar with this beautiful melody: the tender Cradle Song by Johannes Brahms. It may even have a long history in your family, as it does for violinist Rachel Barton Pine.
"Like many people I sing the Brahms lullaby to my daughter all the time, and my mom sang it to me, and her mom sang it to her. So it's a family tradition," Barton Pine explains. "But also, the violin that I'm privileged to use is a 1742 Guarneri del Jesu which was the concert instrument of one of the rare 19th-century women violin soloists, Marie Soldat."
"Marie Soldat was a protege of Brahms. They frequently played chamber music together with Brahms at the piano. And Marie Soldat was one of the first champions of the Brahms Violin Concerto. When she got to the point where she really needed a good instrument for her concerts, Brahms found an aristocratic family to purchase an instrument for her use. And Brahms himself picked this very violin. And so to play the Brahms lullaby, which is such a beloved piece, on the voice of the instrument that Brahms chose is just extraordinary."
Rachel Barton Pine is never at a loss for new musical projects. Her latest, titled Violin Lullabies, is one she's had in the back of her mind for years. It was the birth of her daughter, Sylvia, 18 months ago that finally planted the idea more firmly in Rachel's mind.
"And so once Sylvia was born, I quickly realized that only having two arms, if I'm holding her and rocking her and nursing her, I can't simultaneously be serenading her. But I really also wanted to share with her the music of my favorite instrument, the violin. So I started to collect violin lullabies and realized that there were more than 150 of them that I was able to gather from libraries around the world. So many of them were so gorgeous I realized that I had to make a real CD out of it, especially because it appeared that nobody had ever done such a thing before."
"This was perhaps the easiest album I've ever made," Rachel adds, "because I knew exactly what tempos I wanted the music to be, what nuances I wanted them to have, what types of tone colors I wanted them to portray. I just had to think about holding my baby five minutes earlier and I knew exactly how the music had to go."
In order to get just the right color and nuance for each of the 25 lullabies on this new recording Rachel sought out her dear friend Fred Spector, a retired violinist from the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
Spector possesses the largest collection of stringed instrument mutes, a device that sits on the bridge of the instrument to soften the sound of the violin, "I came up with three that really fit the categories that the music fell into," she explains. "Some of the pieces seemed very warm and comforting - almost the feeling of rocking your baby and soothing them to sleep. "Others of the lullabies are very dreamy and delicate and almost seem to be describing the sleeping baby. And then there are a few very special ones that have an otherworldly, mysterious quality to them, perhaps evoking the feeling of the dream itself. And so for each of these different moods I selected a different mute that could best evoke those qualities."
Motherhood has not only helped Rachel Barton Pine evolve as a human being — she says her artistic approach to her music has also evolved. "What's really interesting is when I used to practice, of course I wanted to do my best and be a very good practicer, to serve the music and also to give the best of myself to the audience. But now there's an extra element, which is knowing that every note I'm practicing is being heard by my impressionable child. It's somehow made me practice that much better. It's like she's my most important audience member of all."
When you see the beautiful baby on the album cover, what you're really seeing is an insider's view into the world of Rachel Barton Pine. "I couldn't resist putting Sylvia on there because it was just the perfect picture. And very appropriate because you know it's realistic to our lives, with daddy holding the baby while mommy practices."
Rachel is really delighted with the way this recording came together, especially because the program includes a variety of composers from many different countries and historical eras. There are some names you'll recognize like Brahms, Ravel and Faure, and some that may be new to you like Ludwig Schwab and Pauline Viardot-Garcia.