Gershwin wrote Lullaby as a student exercise about 1919. His teacher, Hungarian émigré Edward Kilenyi, was giving him a thorough course in classical theory and exposing him to current European composers, such as Schoenberg and Debussy.Lullaby may be Gershwin’s first “serious” piece, but he already had composed musicales with hit tunes like “Swanee” for black-face singer Al Jolson.Brother Ira Gershwin recalled that the quartet was played at a number of private meetings by musician friends and “invariably welcomed.” Its main theme became the opening of an aria (“Has Anyone Seen My Joe”) in the unsuccessful musical Blue Monday in 1922. Despite its flop, the show possibly led to Paul Whitman’s commission and Rhapsody in Blue in 1924. Some 40 years later, Ira showed the manuscript of Lullaby to harmonica virtuoso Larry Adler, whose transcription for harmonica and string quartet was performed at the Edinburgh Festival in 1963. It was premiered in its original version by the Julliard Quartet at the Library of Congress in 1967, and is occasionally heard in a string orchestra rendition.
True to its name, the piece moves slowly and softly (constantly muted) with hypnotic repetition. Delicate harmonics in the first violin introduce the limping figure that becomes the cello’s accompaniment to the stepwise, chordal theme in the upper voices. The colorful harmonies and syncopated rhythms are somewhat bluesy and suggestive of ragtime. Changes in texture (higher registers and different accompaniment) add interest to the repetitions. A middle section develops thematic ideas, keeping the syncopated motion, except for brief “Recitative” solos in the violin and cello. Even though the return of the first section is strong (con fuoco), it soon ends delicately with harmonics in all voices and airy pizzicatos.