“Berceuse” is French for “lullaby” or “cradle song”, and like the other famous example, Faure’s 1864 Berceuse from the Dolly Suite (in the UK forever famous as the theme tune for the BBC children’s radio programme Listen with Mother),
Chopin’s Berceuse in D flat major is characterized by a rocking motion between two chords (the tonic and dominant seventh), used throughout as a harmonic base. But on top of this basso ostinato Chopin weaves a set of 14 variations of melody and accompaniment, starting with the simplest theme and building up to a peak of complexity and speed in the ninth variation, before subsiding again for the return to simplicity at the end – a return to the innocence of sleep following unrest? Its musical fascination lies in the contrast between the unvarying structure in the left hand and the freedom of the right. This is unmistakably late Chopin, and can be grouped alongside the nine or so other works composed between 1843 and 1847 (the number marking a significant decline in his output compared to earlier years), showing an interest in new forms and increased emotional depth. These works include the third and final piano sonata in B minor, the Barcarolle in F sharp major and the two late Nocturnes, numbers 17 and 18. Although still only in his mid-30s when he composed the Berceuse, Chopin’s health was already failing – as was his relationship with George Sand – and he had only four more years to live.
According to Robert Macfarlane (in The Old Ways), in the winter of 1917 the poet Edward Thomas played this piece over and over again in various billets, mostly large and echoing empty houses just behind the front line at Arras, on a gramophone one of the officers had brought with him. Thomas was only out in France for ten weeks before he was killed at the Battle of Arras on April 9, 1917.