Top 4 Traditional German Lullabies Sung to Children Today

Young woman lulling her baby son
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From moms singing to their children to music educators in a high school, finding repertoire that brings people from different cultures closer together is difficult and rewarding. Only some Americans appreciate Aaron Copland’s music let alone sing it, while almost all Americans have sung or heard, “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star,” “Hush Little Baby,” and “Rock-a-Bye Baby.” The cultural implications and influences of traditional lullabies is an entirely different discussion, but a foreigner can get a glimpse into our culture by noting their origin and lyrics. The same can be said of these four tunes for the German-speaking people in Switzerland, Germany, and Austria.

Guten Abend, gut’ Nacht:

Brahms' Lullaby
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My Viennese mother rarely sang lullabies, but when she did this was her favorite. One of the most beloved and well known melodies written by the famous lieder composer Johannes Brahms, many know it as “Brahms' Lullaby.” Translations tend to lose the simplicity of the text and often change the meaning in order for the words to fit the music.

My loose translation that does not fit the music goes like this: “Good evening, good night, covered with roses, adorned with cloves, slip under your quilt: Early in the morning, if it’s God’s will, you will wake up again. Good Evening, good night, watched by little angels (“-lein” is a diminutive which can show endearment, or simply that something is smaller such as kitten to kittie or kitty), they show you in a dream, the Christ Child’s tree (completely different from a Christmas tree), sleep now blissfully and sweet, view in your dream paradise, sleep now blissfully and sweet, view in your dream paradise.”

Weißt du wieviel Sternlein stehen?

Weisst du, wie viel Sternlein stehen
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I was first introduced to this lilting lullaby in my twenties when living in Frankfurt, Germany from a friend and quickly found out how beloved it was. The famous lullaby by Wilhem Hey poses a series of questions that are impossible to answer starting with “Do you know how many stars are in the sky?” to the final question, “Do you know how many children get up early from bed?” In each verse the answer is the same: God knows, cares, and keeps track of them all. The tune is set in 3/4 time just as Guten Abend, gut’ Nacht, but has fewer long notes and sounds faster.

Der Mond ist aufgegangen:

Image courtesy of Wikimedia commons

Though I have traditionally only sung the first verse, my aunt sung all seven to her child and later my aging grandmother. She likes to tell the story of her daughter asking for the ‘sick neighbor song,’ and how later my grandmother asked for this lullaby in the same way. It is funny, since the song has so little to do with neighbors in general.

The first two verses describe night: the moon rising, the stars shining, the world silent, and etc. The third verse makes an analogy between how one cannot see the entire moon when only half appears at night and things that humans cannot see and mock. The fourth verse comments on sinners, the fifth asks for God’s help, and the sixth asks for a peaceful death.

The last verse asks God for a peaceful slumber to us and “unsern kranken Nachbarn auch!” which translates to: and also our sick neighbors. Hence comes the “sick neighbor song,” nickname. Whatever you may title this traditional song, it is well loved in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland.

Schlaf, Kindlein, schlaf:

German Lullaby
A favorite German lullaby. Image © Katrina Schmidt

The melody of Schlaf, Kindlein, schlaf is so familiar to me, that I am not sure where I heard it first or where I even know it from! The lullaby reminds me of Mother Goose nursery rhymes, because all six of the verses talk about sheep. The first verse translates to: “Sleep, little child (the German ‘Kindlein’ is a diminutive form of child that is endearing), Sleep, Your father guards the sheep, your mother shakes a little tree (tree in diminutive form), and down falls a little dream (dream in diminutive form), sleep little child sleep.”

Later verses, mention the sheep seeing heaven that the Christ child has a sheep, then promises a sheep to the child, warns not to bleat like one, and the last verse is a call for a little black dog to go and watch the sheep and not wake the child. The lyrics are deceptively clever and lose some of their sweetness in translation. Either way, I like to sing it whenever anyone suggests I count sheep to fall asleep.