Early in its travels across Europe, the original tune for Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star (Italy’s La Mantovana) began to transform. Imagine a children’s game of Telephone in which a message is passed from one player to another. In the end it’s quite different from what it was in the beginning. That’s the kind of process La Mantovana went through before it became Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.
It would appear as though there was an overall shift in La Mantovana‘s music in the belt of lands through the main European continent between Germany and the Ukraine. This process likely began in the early 18th Century as folk musicians performed and passed on the music from one to another.
This post focuses on a cluster of tunes that may have come from a single common variant. They are Germany’s Burlesque, Germany’s Alle meine Entchen, the Czech Republic’s Kočka leze dírou, pes oknem and Ukraine’s Kucheriava Katerina. Together, these seem to represent a transitional pivoting point in which La Mantovana was modified in several key ways before it eventually became the Twinkle folk tune.
Here are some of the common features shared by these four tunes:
- They are in the major tonality.
- They retain the original melody’s five upward-stepping notes and have A sections which closely resemble La Mantovana’s.
- Each has a different treatment of the B section: one foreshadows Twinkle’s B section, one has a brand new B section tune, and two have no B section at all.
- The complete disappearance of an extra B section couplet.
This is Part II of the Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star series. Before you read this instalment, make sure you’ve read Part I:
Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star: Part I The ultimate guide to this tune in our culture [Printables] Discover the earliest known version of one of the world’s most-loved tunes, with music samples from the 17th century and earlier.
Germany: Burlesque in G, Anonymous, 1750s
Many of today’s piano students have learned a piece called Burlesque, originally from an 18th century collection that has gone by the name of Notenbuch für Wolfgang, purportedly given to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart as a present on his seventh birthday from his father, Leopold.
However, historian Wolfgang Plath believes the birthday inscription inside the front cover to be a forgery, having Mozart’s birthday as October 31st when it’s really January 27th. Still, according to Plath’s analysis the notebook was indeed compiled in central Germany in the mid-1750s. Even without a connection to the Mozarts, Burlesque should still hold great interest to Twinkle fans.
Burlesque represents a transitional period between La Mantovana and the simple Twinkle tune we all know so well.
On one hand, Burlesque retains elements of the La Mantovana prototype:
- AABA form. Like La Mantovana, the first tune (A) 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.
But Burlesque also presents some significant developments away from the original.
- Whereas La Mantovana was minor, Burlesque (like Twinkle) is in a major key.
- Whereas La Mantovana‘s B section began up an octave, Burlesque begins (as does Twinkle’s B tune) on the fifth degree of the scale.
- Whereas La Mantovana‘s second melody featured four descending notes with a Dorian raised note, Burlesque‘s are firmly in the major tonality. This shows a decided shift in stylistic preference away from the colourful sounds of modes. Interestingly, the intervals are the same in both versions. The difference lay in the starting pitch.
- The disappearance of the two measure “couplet” extension at the end of the B section.
Worth noting is Burlesque‘s fascinating departure from metric norms, which gives the music its signature impulsive, humorous character.
- Unlike any other version, the ascending five notes at the opening of the A tune are written as an upbeat.
- While the B tune descends twice as expected (like it does in Twinkle), it begins on the upbeat the first time, then repeats on the beat. Each phrase in Burlesque‘s B section is two-and-a-half measures long. This gives it its restless, unsettled feel.
Today’s composers would have no problem composing such music, but shifting music without a predictable downbeat was unusual for 18th Century composers. These anomalies suggest either that the piece was based on a folk version that didn’t follow a regular time signature, or that it was perhaps created by a child composer and written down by someone who knew better than to change what the child had created.
German States: Alle meine Entchen, folk
Alle meine Entchen is a German children’s folk song that can be translated into, “All my little Ducklings.” The century of its origin is unknown.
Alle meine Entchen appears to have emerged from the same German cultural stream as Burlesque, suggested by these common features:
- The major tonality.
- It retains the overall melodic shape of La Mantovana‘s A section, including the five quick ascending notes in the opening of the melody
- These features indicate that the music may pre-date the further simplified French version Ah! vous dirai-je, maman.
But like all music rooted in a folk tradition, Alle meine Entchen has some unique adaptations:
- The second measure’s melody fragment is echoed in measure three. This gives Alle meine Entchen a total of five measures, an odd measure count as most music normally has four-measure phrases.
- The complete absence of a B section. The song is comprised of several short verses all set to the A section, which simply repeats.
The next tune, Kočka leze dírou, pes oknem, seems to be based on Alle meine Entchen. It can be surmised that the German tune came first, as it more closely resembles the original A section of La Mantovana, evidenced with the straightforward downward direction of the tune at the end of each verse.
Czech Republic: Kočka leze dírou, pes oknem
Kočka leze dírou, pes oknem is a Czech children’s song and can be translated, “The cat climbs through the hole, the dog through the window.” The century of origin for this Twinkle variation is unknown. However, Kočka leze dírou, pes oknem is listed here as it is so similar to Alle meine Entchen that it appears to be derived from it.
The Czech tune resembles Alle meine Entchen in several ways:
- The major tonality.
- The five quick ascending notes in the opening of the melody.
- The melody fragment in measure two that is echoed in measure three.
- The complete absence of a B section. Both songs simply repeat the A section set to several short verses.
The Czech variation takes the tune a step further than Alle meine Entchen by extending the end of each verse by repeating the words, first with a question phrase (the tune goes up), then with an answer phrase (the tune finally steps down). This makes the song a little longer, at seven measures.
Ukraine: Kucheriava Katerina, Anonymous
Kucheriava Katerina is the Ukraine’s variation on La Mantovana. It is translated, “Curly-Headed Catherine.” Although it isn’t known when this version was first created, it’s included in this post as it shares so much in common with this group of tunes.
The Kucheriava Katerina that we know today is the result of a lengthy process of multiple generations of folk musicians playing and passing on the music, with slight variations creeping in over the years. But it is likely that it originates from the the same variant as these others. If all of these versions of the music were drawn in a musical family tree, Kucheriava Katerina could be recorded on a branch with the rest of these titles.
While the following performance is on a lute (an instrument of the Renaissance and Baroque), it’s unknown if this exact tune was contemporary with the instrument.
Like all of the tunes in this group, Kucheriava Katerina is in the major, which suggests that it shares a common history with the rest.
- The opening of the A section is a throwback to the original La Mantovana tune, retaining the quickly ascending five notes and the overall shape of the A section melody.
- In the second measure of some recordings there’s a fun little jump up to the upper key note. Two versions from nearby Romania share a similar jump (also in their second measures) Luncile s-au desteptat and Carul cu boi (these will be discussed in Part IV).
It’s interesting to note how many different ways the basic melody has been decorated with extra notes. In Burlesque, it was the second note of each repeated pitch pair that was decorated. But in Kucheriava Katerina, it’s the first note of each repeated pair.
- Kucheriava Katerina is in binary form, and with repeats is AABB. In this way, it departs from La Mantovana‘s structure, which had a return to A in the end.
- The B section has a tune not yet heard. In some ways, it seems to be a variant of the A tune. Interestingly, the B section retains an octave leap to the upper key note, albeit at the end of the phrase and not at the beginning as it was in La Mantovana.
The four tunes in this group attest to the slight changes and discrepancies that creep into a melody in an age when music was heard then passed along from folk musician to folk musician, not written down often (or at all) for stretches of time and adapted to lyrics of new languages.
While some characteristics of the original were kept, like the contour of La Mantovana‘s A section melody, other elements changed, like the shift from the minor to the major tonality and the simplification or disappearance of the B section.
In the next part of the series we’ll explore what happened next in this tune’s progression to becoming Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.
More to explore!
This is the second 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, Burlesque, Alle meine Entchen, Kočka leze dírou, pes oknem and Kucheriava Katerina, 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!
Discover the earliest-known version of one of the world’s most-loved tunes, with music samples from the 17th century and earlier. Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star Part I: The ultimate guide to this tune in our culture [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!
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Video of the Week
Elegy for a Lost Star (Late Elementary, Level 2). A piece composed with loss and comfort in mind. It’s easy to learn and remember because of the black and white key patterns and can be learned partly by rote. Explores rolling eighths and dotted-quarters in 6/8 meter, which makes this an ideal introduction to 6/8 meter. Available as an eSheet!