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Sleep Songs

Five settings of folk lullabies for soprano and piano.

1.   Duermete Niño

2.  Dodo Piti Popo

3.  Na Wojtusia

4.  Nana Nene

5.  Ninna Nanna

This performance:

Roberta Duhs, Soprano

Sarah Elias, Piano

22 February 2019

The inspiration for Sleep Songs is folklore lullabies: songs which refer to stories and characters unique to specific cultures.  This set was commissioned by soprano Roberta Duhs as part of her graduate studies at Jackson State University: She selected five lullabies, each with a different language and cultural background, and asked me to interpret them through the medium of artsong. The resulting pieces are fanciful musical commentaries on the process of falling asleep (willingly or not), on a mother’s love, and on the sometimes fantastic imagery used to induce children to submit to slumber. 


Composing Sleep Songs presented several engaging challenges.  Not the least of these was working with five different languages, only two of which I claim any familiarity.  Also, since all of the songs invoke lullabies, they tend toward the same expressive design, which could become tiresome: a parent (a mother, one might presume) singing a restless child to sleep.  On the other hand, the lullabies express five distinct strategies for promoting sleep, involving some mixture of calm encouragement, withering insistence, fanciful stories, and menacing predators.  A few of the traditional melodies do not strike me as naturally somnolent, either—most notably the insistently bouncy dodo piti popo.  (One might argue convincingly that some of these songs might cause “folksong-induced insomnia.”)


In recasting each lullaby as an artsong, I had three objectives in mind.  The first was to honor the texts and melodies Roberta had selected, particularly preserving the elements of folk-mythology.  The second was to voice each song’s “story” as well as the scene of a somewhat restless child losing focus and drifting off to sleep. 


The third involved letting the music reflect my perspective, which (frankly) was not always clear to me. I am not sure that I approve of frightening a child to keep it in bed, I’m really not sure that La Befana is much of a witch, and I have no idea why Baba Jaga lives in a house made of butter.  Going to sleep is also a daily reminder of death (perhaps this is why I adorned "Ninna Nanna" with quotations from Coventry Carol ), which might explain why lullabies sometimes resort to expressions of fear and menace.  However, I do have experience with the challenge and the rare beauty of sending a child to slumber, so I was careful to immerse the tense and fearful elements in an atmosphere of wonder and longing, and let each song dissolve into peaceful silence.  

Texts and Translations

1.    Duérmete niño

Duérmete niño,                       Sleep my baby,

Duérmete ya.                          Sleep, baby, do!

Que viene El Coco                 The Coco [Bogeyman] is coming

Y te llevará.                             And he will take you.

Que viene El Coco                 The Coco is coming

Y te comerá.                           And he will eat you.

2.   Dodo Piti Popo

Dodo piti popo                        Sleep, little baby,

Piti popo pa vle dodo.            The little baby doesn’t want to sleep.

Zambie a ke mange li             The jumbie will eat him,

Sukugnan ke suce san.          The soukouyant will suck his blood.

3.   Na Wojtusia

Już ci nigdy nie uwierzę                 Never shall I believe you again,

Iskiereczko mała.                             little Spark.

Wojtuś zapamięta.                           Wotjus will remember.

Na Wojtusia z popielnika                From the ashtray of Wotjus

Iskiereczka mruga                           A Spark is blinking

- Chodź opowiem ci bajeczkę,       “Come, I’ll tell you a fairytale,

Bajka będzie długa.                         The fairytale will be long.

Była sobie raz królewna,                 There once was a princess,

Pokochała grajka,                            She fell in love with a musician,

Król wyprawił im wesele…               The king hosts a wedding for them…

I skończona bajka.                           And that is the end of the story.

Była sobie Baba Jaga,                     There once was Baba Jaga,

Miała chatkę z masła,                      She had a hut of butter,

A w tej chatce same dziwy…           And in the hut everything was so strange…”

Cyt! Iskierka zgasła.                         Pop! – the Spark is extinguished.

Patrzy Wojtuś, patrzy, duma,           Wotjus looks, looking, wondering,

Zaszły łzą oczęta.                             Tears have come into his eyes.

Czemuś mnie tak okłamała?           “Why have you lied to me so?”

Wojtuś zapamięta.                            Wotjus will remember.

Już ci nigdy nie uwierzę                  Never shall I believe you again,

Iskiereczko mała.                              little Spark.

Najpierw błyśniesz, potem gaśniesz,     First you flash, then fade,”

Ot i bajka cała.                                  And that’s the whole fairytale.


4.   Nana Nenê

Nana nenê                               Nana baby

Que a Cuca vem pegar,          Who Cuca comes to catch,

Papai foi na roça,                     Papa was in the fields,

Mamãe foi trabalhar.               Mama went to work.


Boi, boi, boi,                             Ox, bull, steer,

Boi da cara preta,                    Black-faced Steer,

Pega esse menino                  Take this boy

Que tem medo de careta.      Who’s afraid of your grimace.


Bicho papão,                            Bogeyman,

Sai de cima do telhado,          Get off the roof,

Deixa esse menino                  Let this boy

Dormir sossegado.                  Sleep peacefully.

5.   Ninna Nanna

Ninna nanna, ninna oh,                   Ninna nanna, ninna oh,

Questo bimbo a chi lo do?              To whom do I give this child?

Lo darò alla Befana,                         I’ll give it to the Befana

Che lo tiene una settimana.            Who keeps him a week.


Lo darò all' Uomo Nero,                   I’ll give it to the Black Man

Che lo tiene un anno intero.            Who keeps him a whole year.


Lo darò all' Uomo Bianco,                I’ll give it to the White Man

Che le tiene finché è stanco.           Who holds him until he is tired.


Lo darò al Saggio Folletto,               I’ll give it to the Wise Elf

Che lo renda Uomo perfetto!           Who makes him the perfect man!


Se lo do al Bambin Gesù,                 If I give him to Baby Jesus,

Se lo tiene'e non ce lo da più.         He’ll keep him and not from us for long.


Ninna nanna, ninna oh,                    Ninna nanna, ninna oh,

Questo bimbo lo terrò.                     I’ll keep this baby.

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