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Counting Sheep: Sleepy Pieces of Classical Music

Ether Game's list of pieces guaranteed to cure your insomnia.

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Photo: Pixabay

Ether Game's soporific selection of sleepytime tunes

Feeling tired? Here’s Ether Game’s list of some of the sleepiest pieces of classical music. Grab your cup of sleepytime tea, and drift off to dreamland…

  • Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky – Sleeping Beauty Waltz: Written in 1889, Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty had its premiere the following year, at the Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersburg. The ballet is based on a story by Charles Perrault in which a princess, blessed by magical fairies with gifts of beauty, wit, grace, dance, song, and goodness, is also cursed by an evil fairy. The curse puts her into a deep sleep for 100 years, which can only be broken by the kiss of a prince. Tchaikovsky’s adaptation of this fairy tale followed the disastrous premiere of his other ballet Swan Lake. Not wanting the same results, he worked more closely with choreographer Marius Petipa to create a production that would ensure its success. His plan obviously worked and the premiere went much more smoothly, establishing Sleeping Beauty as one of Tchaikovsky’s most performed ballet scores.

  • Richard Wagner - Die Walküre, Act III, “Magic Sleep Music”: Sleep appears in many forms in Wagner’s ring cycle. In the third act of Die Walküre for example, it becomes a punishment as Wotan commands Brünnhilde to an enchanted sleep for defying his order to bring the warrior Siegmund to Valhalla. Wagner composed a special leitmotif for Brünnhilde’s magical sleep that has since been nicknamed the “Oblivion” leitmotif. It is characterized by an ethereal, mysterious quality, made possible because the five measure leitmotif consists almost entirely of chromatic descending triads in the upper voices. Wotan was not completely cruel in his punishment for Brünnhilde. He also calls on the fire god Loge to encircle the sleeping Valkyrie in a wall of protective fire. Loge was actually made up for the Ring cycle. His name, however, is based on two characters from Norse mythology—Loki, a kind of trickster figure, and Logi, a mythical giant who is considered the personification of fire.

  • Frédéric Chopin – Berceuse in D-flat Major, Op. 57: Lullabies abound in classical music; there’s a famous one you may have heard by Brahms once or twice when you were falling asleep as a child. And many of us would agree that a few minutes of relaxing music before bedtime improves our sleeping habits. Certainly composers such as Chopin, Liszt, and Balakirev believed that when they titled their compositions “berceuse,” the French word for “lullaby.” In 2006, students at the Institute of Behavioral Science in Budapest, Hungary set out to scientifically prove that classical music improves the quality of one’s sleep. They conducted research for three weeks on people with sleep complaints, dividing them into two groups: one that would listen to 45 minutes of an audiobook before bedtime and another that would listen to 45 minutes of Berceuses, lullabies and nocturnes. The conclusion of the study confirmed what Chopin had probably already known for many years when he completed his Berceuse in 1839, that a little classical music can cure your insomnia.

  • Engelbert Humperdinck - Hänsel Und Gretel, Act II, “The Sandman’s Song”: Have you ever woken up, rubbed your eyes, and noticed a little…grit? A couple hundred years ago, if you were a child in Europe, you may have believed those gritty “sleepies” to be the work of the Sandman. The Sandman shows up in the stories of Hans Christian Andersen and E. T. A. Hoffmann, a character who sprinkles dust in children’s eyes to help them fall asleep and dream. He also plays a role in Humperdinck’s fairy tale opera Hansel and Gretel. As the two children are traversing through the forest, the Sandman suddenly appears, singing a lullaby as he sprinkles sand in the children’s eyes. Before they fall asleep, the two recite their evening prayer. After group of dancing angels protect the sleeping children, they are awoken in the morning by the Dew Fairy, who removes the sand from their eyes.

  • Eric Whitacre - SleepEric Whitacre’s Sleep has become one of the most popular choral pieces of the past 20 years, thanks to Whitacre’s unique style of sonorous, clustered harmonies. The poem is by Charles Anthony Silvestri, who also wrote the poems for Whitacre’s pieces Lux Aurumque and Leonardo Dream of His Flying Machine. However, Whitacre’s original intention was to set a much more famous poem, “Stopping By Woods On A Snowy Evening” by Robert Frost. This original setting was even performed a few times, but when Whitacre went to publish it, he was blocked by Robert Frost’s estate. He needed new words for his music, and turned to his friend Silvestri. Silvestri riffed on the final line from Frost’s poem “and miles to go before I sleep,” and provided him with this new poem. Perhaps we’ll hear Whitacre’s original work in the year 2038, when Frost’s copyright finally expires.

  • Vincenzo Bellini - La SonnambulaSleepwalking was a favorite theme of early nineteenth century opera librettists.  No fewer than six libretti used sleepwalking as a theme, including Bellini, whose contribution we heard here. In this aria from Act 2, the character Amina sleepwalks precariously along the edge of a mill-house roof singing her grief at having lost the love of Elvino. After miraculously making it across, she wakes to find herself in the arms of Elvino, who has returned to marry her. The lament on the mill house roof is followed by a joyous cabaletta in which Amina joyously sings that human thought cannot conceive of the happiness that fills her. In current productions, this scene is done not on a rooftop but rather on a bridge across the mill-stream, an innovation supposedly introduced by Jenny Lind.

  • John Dowland - Come Heavy SleepeJohn Dowland’s lute song “Come Heavy Sleep” was first published in his “First Booke of Songs” in 1597. Unfortunately, the “heavy sleep” depicted in this song is a symbol for death, as a release from his worldly cares. The tone of the piece is representative of a preference for melancholy emotions in Elizabethan music. On a happier note, the song has become one of Dowland’s most well known and loved tunes, second only to “Flow My Teares”. The tune is so well known, that over three hundred years later, fellow Englishman Benjamin Britten composed a series of variations on the tune. Britten’s work for solo guitar, entitled “Nocturnal” is a series of variations in which the theme doesn’t appear in its original form until the end—sort of a reverse of the usual theme and variations form made popular in the Classical era and beyond.

  • Witold Lutoslawski - Les Espaces Du Sommeil (“Sleep’s Spaces): Polish composer Witold Lutoslawski’s song for voice and orchestra was written in 1975 for the famed baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. Les Espaces Du Sommeil or “Sleep’s Spaces” uses a poem of the same name by French surrealist Robert Desnos. In choosing this poem, Lutosławski said he was attracted to the musical nature of Desnos’ poem. In it clocks chime, a piano sounds, and doors slam. Amid all the incongruous imagery found in the text, Desnos gives the reader a firm footing in the refrain of an inescapable “you.” This unnamed person can be found everywhere in the surreal dreamland of Desnos. At the end, when “you” is found in daytime, too, the orchestra flitters away into the nothingness of consciousness from the richness of the spaces of sleep.

Music Heard On This Episode

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