Songs for sleep perhaps have the most power of all, though this is the opposite of what their rhythms and melodies seem to express. We must sleep to live, and what makes us sleep easily and naturally is perhaps the closest thing to actual magic. When we have slept well, for a moment on waking we have everything we need.

With this in mind, and because I am very fond of the lullabies in the film The Commissar (Dir. Askoldov, 1967), I wanted to discover what would happen if I changed the language of its lyrics, and how the melody and patterns of the pitches would have to change as well.

Meaning – words – rhythm – pitches are like nesting dolls, each must fit more or less comfortably inside the next if song is to work, or in this case…rest well.

The Commissar of the film’s title sings this song to her new-born son, who she knows she will not be able to keep with her for long. For this woman and child it is a lullaby for all time. Below is the music in solfa with the word-sounds written out for the first verse. It is in the ‘la’ pentatonic scale and uses the note ‘ti’. To find it, use a keyboard or keyboard app, and play the closest black or white note lower (by a semi-tone) than the note you are using as ‘do’. The ‘bai, bai, bai’ sounds are decorated with a tiny squashed note just before them called an accacciatura (‘acachatura’). Listening to the recording will let you know what these signs should sound like.

Here are English versions of some of these verses and elsewhere in the film, then some music for them. To try to keep its absolute purity I had to use as few word sounds in each line as possible, otherwise it started galloping along like ‘White Bird Featherless’ in the previous post. And fewer syllables allowed me to slow it down to three beat bars – two in each phrase, the same as in the original, and keep the pitch pattern as close as possible. The small differences in rhythm between lines add something, or perhaps take it away.

Bai baby bai, don’t
Sleep at the side,
Grey wolf will come,
Snap at your tum.

Calico skirt
Carefully worn,
Once I had kids
To nappies was torn.

Sleep my child,
How softly you sleep,
Sleep must I too,
Wake early with you.

Here it is in solfa and as a piano piece.

%d bloggers like this: