How much do you think you know about Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star?
Maybe you have a good ear and have figured out that other children’s songs share the same tune, like Baa, Baa Black Sheep, the Alphabet Song and perhaps even a German children’s song about ducks not as well known in the English-speaking world.
Maybe you’ve heard the Mozart variations (and know the French title). If you’re familiar with other classical music, maybe you’ve suspected something fishy was going on with Smetana’s The Moldau? Or, if you’re more into popular music, maybe you’ve you heard Twinkle’s star appearance in Gotye’s Somebody that I Used to Know, or even sleuthed it out in What a Wonderful World (if not, think “I see trees of green…” to Louis Armstrong’s voice and you’ll hear it).
As I started working on this post, nothing prepared me for how deep and wide my search for this tune would go. It’s led me with bread crumbs on a 500-year quest along a winding path through countries, over continents, languages and musical styles. It surprised me how completely this tune has permeated the very fabric of western music.
This plays into a pet theory of mine: that there are only a handful of seed melodies in the world and every piece of music is somehow based on one of them. It makes you wonder about lawsuits between creative people trying to control the intellectual property of a melody, trying to tame down the infectious spread of something you can’t immunize yourself against: a tune.
What if every tune in existence is a variation of some kind?
Imagine the children’s game of Telephone, in which players whisper a phrase from ear to ear, down a long chain of people. What’s said in the beginning usually changes by the end. That’s the story of the Twinkle, Twinkle tune. In fact, when you hear the original you may or may not hear the similarity.
Italy: La Mantovana, attributed to Biado (1500s)
Our quest for the Twinkle tune appears to begin in Renaissance Italy sometime in the 1500s with a tune attributed to Italian tenor, Giuseppino del Biado (d. 1616). Originally called La Mantovana or Il Ballo di Mantova (Mantua Dance), and set to the text Fuggi, fuggi, fuggi da questo cielo (Flee, flee, flee from this sky), it first appeared in print in Biado’s book of madrigals in the year 1600.
Features of La Mantovana that will define the Twinkle tune over the next hundred years are:
- It’s in a Minor key signature with features of the Dorian mode (the Dorian raised 6th degree of the scale hearkens back to Medieval music.)
- AABA form. The first tune is stated then repeats, there follows contrasting material in the middle, and finally, the first tune returns once more.
- The main tune begins with five quick ascending notes, then follows the familiar “Twinkle” shape back down.
- The second melody (B) begins by stepping down four notes. This resembles the eventual Twinkle folk tune (it’s even made of the same intervals as Twinkle’s: whole tone, semitone, whole tone). However, instead of starting at the fifth degree of the scale as Twinkle’s B section does, it begins up an octave on the upper key note then descends in the Dorian mode with four notes. This unique sound remains a feature of all variants until the end of the 17th Century.
- There are two measures of connecting material at the end of the B section, before the return of the main tune (a couplet).
Note: Even though Biado’s madrigals were compiled and published in the year 1600, it’s assumed that La Mantovana was created earlier. The music reflects at least the Renaissance style and may be based on a much earlier unknown tune.
England: An Italian Rant, John Playford (1651)
La Mantovana spread widely over Europe. Over several centuries the tune was adapted to newly-written lyrics in many languages: Ukranian, Polish, Romanian, Flemish, French and Scottish to name a few. In 1651, it was published in John Playford’s first edition of The English Dancing Master with the title An Italian Rant. Here it is recorded on authentic Renaissance instruments.
An Italian Rant carries forward many of La Mantovana’s features: the minor key signature and the five ascending notes at the opening.
The B section begins on the upper octave note and descends with the raised “Dorian” note.
And this version keeps the couplet extension before the A melody returns.
Belgium: Ik zag Cecilia komen, Anonymous (1661-1693)
The Flemish version of the Twinkle tune, Ik zag Cecilia komen, is translated “I Saw Cecilia Coming.” It first appeared in the Ghent Carillon Book, written down between 1661 and 1693.
This setting gives the music a long-short lilt, in 12/8 compound meter (basically, four beats per measure, but with three inner pulses per beat). The slower tempo matched with the minor key imbue the music with a tender and melancholic sound. Notice that it begins on an upbeat.
The A tune does not repeat, but goes straight into the B section, which bears some similarity to La Mantovana, including the jump to the upper octave and the raised Dorian note.
Like all known 17th Century versions of La Mantovana, Ik zag Cecilia komen retains the two-measure connecting material between the B section and the return of A. However, this is the first time we hear the four-note descending pattern on the pitches that will eventually become the B section we know in Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star (though still in the minor).
The Ghent Carillon Book was a compilation of sacred and popular tunes, signifying that Ik zag Cecilia komen was already widely known at the time the music was arranged for the volume.
Scotland: My Mistress is Prettie, Mouton (late 1600s)
The Balcarres Lute Book, which is a late-17th Century Scottish manuscript, gives us My Mistress is Prettie, movement IV in the The French Suite by Mr. Mouton. According to the notes on a current print edition, “…the Balcarres Lute Book is the largest and most important post-1640 British source of lute music. It contains…settings of native Scots airs and of English popular tunes, and French baroque lute music by mid and later 17th-c masters.”
Of all of the European versions of Twinkle, the Scottish tune is the most compelling. Like Ik zag Cecilia komen, it begins on an upbeat.
It shares many features with La Mantovana. For example, in the second phrase, it retains the octave leap to the upper key note as well as the descent in the Dorian mode.
More to explore!
This is the first instalment of a series of blog posts on this seemingly universal melody. Join me as I continue through time and across the European continent (and beyond) in search of more versions and variations.
If you’d like to compare the four melodies mentioned in this post, La Mantovana, An Italian Rant, Ik zag Cecilia komen and My Mistress is Prettie, you’ll find the music in my printables section in the section called Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.
This melody’s scope of influence cannot be underestimated. It would be difficult to find a child or adult from a western country (or even a country that is influenced by western music) who has not heard, sung or played this tune.
Watch for more!
As the original Italian tune began to transform in folk circles, which features were kept and which were lost? And where in Europe did the original minor tune first become major? It’s all explored in this post! Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star Part II: La Mantovana branches into the major key [Printables]
Discover the transformation from La Mantovana with its busy, florid melody to the simple tune of France’s Ah! vous dirai-je, maman and composers’ variations on it, beginning with Mozart. Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star Part III: Mozart, a French folk song and beyond [Printables]
In many countries across Europe this tune was set to the native language and adopted as a national theme. It’s interesting to compare the versions that emerged and note which features of the original music were retained and how the music changed as it travelled. Coming soon!
Welcome to the centuries in which Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star emerged from earlier folk settings and then continued to be borrowed and grow into new major works and songs. Coming soon!
Do you like this post and want more? In the side menu click “follow” to get notifications of my posts in your inbox.
I appreciate shares, comments and likes. Happy teaching! ❤
Video of the Week
North Star. (Intermediate piano, Level 4) Based on Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star, North Star (eSheet) features fifths, rhythmic patterns with sixteenth notes, legato pedal and lots of moments for developing long, expressive phrases. North Star is available as an eSheet!