It’s thought that Mozart heard people singing Ah! vous dirai-je, maman (the French Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star) in Paris as a child in the 1760s and again as a young man seeking employment in 1778.
However, it’s more likely that Mozart was familiar with several versions of this music from his own homeland and from his extensive travels. Evidence for that lay hidden in his variations.
This is Part III of the Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star series. Before you read this instalment, make sure you’ve read the two instalments thus far, starting with 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.
Geography and the advent of a folk tune
Before exploring Mozart’s variations, let’s talk about how the French folk tune came to be in the first place.
We have explored the spread across Europe of an Italian tune called La Mantovana. It was originally in a minor key. As it spread, there branched off of a set of tunes that switched over to the major. Ah! vous dirai-je, maman descends from the latter group.
The evolution of the music from La Mantovana to the French Ah! vous dirai-je, maman can be traced through a swathe of land on the northern side of Continental Europe from the Holy Roman Empire (present-day Germany), through Belgium and the upper coast of France stretching to Paris.
The middle B section offers the biggest clues as to how the florid La Mantovana changed into the simple French folk tune. Belgium’s Ik zag Cecilia komen was the first version of La Mantovana to feature the four descending pitches that would eventually become Ah! vous dirai-je, maman‘s B section’s tune. Here’s Ik zag Cecilia komen‘s couplet (as featured in in Part I of this series).
Also notable is the fact that Ik zag Cecilia komen was the only known 17th Century version to shed the repeat of the first A section, already making the transition from La Mantovana‘s AABA structure to the folk tune’s ABA.
This Belgian variant likely circled the noted geographic regions, becoming major then increasingly simplified as it was passed orally person-to-person and adapted to different languages and lyrics by folk musicians.
By about 1750 when the music was written down as Burlesque in the Holy Roman Empire (present day Germany), the Dorian mode intervals of La Mantovana‘s original B section were melded together with the scale degrees used in Ik zag Cecilia komen‘s couplet into two short repeated phrases that were nearly exactly what the folk tune’s B section was to become.
It may be significant that it was in Brussels, Belgium that Ah! vous dirai-je, maman [titled as La Confidence naïve] first appeared in print with music and lyrics together, in 1774. This marks the region where La Mantovana first began to evolve more than 100 years earlier in melody and form into the simpler folk tune.
France: Ah, vous dirai-je, maman, Folk, 1761
There’s a fascinating story behind the French folk tune Ah! vous dirai-je, maman.
The simplest and most famous version of the Twinkle tune thus far first appeared in print in François Boüin’s, La Vielleuse skillful in France in 1761. The title was Ah! vous dirai-je, maman. Then in 1762, the tune (without lyrics) was published once again in a collection arranged for mixed instruments for garden parties, Les Amusements d’une Heure et Demy. The book, attributed to Boüin, was a collection of music that was likely already widely known.
However, the French lyrics are older. French composer and folklorist Jean-Baptiste Weckerlin claimed that the earliest appearance of the words was in 1740, though he didn’t specify where. The lyrics were used again in 1745 at the Comédie Italienne in the play Les Folies de Coraline. The fact that the lyrics were put into print this early suggests that the tune was also being sung in the early part of the 18th Century.
The first time the lyrics and music were published together was in Brussels in 1774, in volume two of Recueil de Romances. The song was titled La Confidence naïve. The lyrics open with, “Ah ! vous dirai-je, maman, / Ce qui cause mon tourment?” [Ah! Shall I tell you, Mama, / What causes my torment?].
While most people believe that Ah! vous dirai-je, maman was a children’s song, the original version was about the torment a young adult was experiencing from their lover. You can find the original French lyrics and English translation on Wikipedia in the section “La Confidence naïve“. Julie Andrews sings the original French lyrics:
The children’s song by the same name came later, possibly as late as 1895, after other children’s songs had already been set to the tune. The children’s version was a parody on the lover’s song, of a child complaining to their mother about their father wanting them to have reason when candies were better than reason.
All versions of the Twinkle tune explored so far in this series have retained the swiftly-ascending opening notes first heard in the Italian madrigal Fuggi, fuggi, fuggi (commonly known as La Mantovana).
Now for the first time, Ah! vous dirai-je, maman presents the opening of the tune with two simplified repeated notes on the tonic (key note) followed by a leap up a fifth to the next two repeated notes. Finally, we hear the Twinkle tune with which we are most familiar today.
The B tune in Ah! vous dirai-je, maman is nearly the same as Twinkle’s B tune. The melody begins on the fifth degree of the scale then follows repeated and descending tones down four steps, twice through.
However, there’s one notable difference with Twinkle. Each phrase in Ah! vous dirai-je, maman‘s B section ends with an appoggiatura, the Italian term for a non-chord tone which delays the arrival of an expected chord tone. In the notation above, this occurs with the syllables “VAN-dre” and “TEN-dre” (all-caps demarcate the appoggiaturas with the chord tones immediately following).
These slow-sounding appoggiaturas are a sonic calling card of 18th Century Classical music. Twinkle’s eventual B section will simplify the tune even further into two more repeated notes, in keeping with the rest of the melody.
Also for the first time, we hear the familiar folk tune’s ABA structure, without repeats.
Austria: Variations on “Ah, vous dirai-je, maman”, Mozart, 1785
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart wrote the most famous (and possibly the first) set of variations on the Twinkle tune.
Mozart’s variations were probably written in the early 1780s when Mozart was a young man, and they may have been intended as piano exercises for the piano students he taught. The complete work was published in 1785 when he was 29 years of age.
Here’s how Mozart’s variations sound on the fortepiano, the kind of piano he played.
Mozart’s work is clearly inspired by the music of Ah! vous dirai-je, maman, and indeed, his title indicates that it is. Mozart was likely interested in riding the coat tails of this popular music and hoped that he’d make good sales of his print music.
Mozart’s Theme appears to be based on the folk song with a few extra flourishes. After all, he presents the iconic repeated notes and features the leap up the fifth, both hallmarks of the French tune.
However, there are differences in structure as well as small rhythmic deviations that may suggest that Mozart’s variations are not only based on Ah! vous dirai-je, maman, but also on the Italian madrigal, Fuggi, fuggi, fuggi (La Mantovana).
[Note: Mozart composed his theme and variations in C Major. The music is here transposed into G for the purpose of comparison.]
Here are some features of Mozart’s variations that indicate a double influence of both Ah! vous dirai-je, maman and La Mantovana:
- The structure does not reflect the straightforward ABA form or lyrics of Ah! vous dirai-je, maman. Whereas the lyrics of the folk song do not repeat, Mozart has chosen to include repeats which lengthen the music into AABABA. Interestingly, Mozart’s repeat of the opening A section hearkens back to the structure of La Mantovana.
- The rhythm of Mozart’s opening melody is not entirely that of the French folk song. The sung phrase, “Ah! vous dirai-je, maman,” settles on the final syllable of maman with a held note (half note). Instead, in that spot (the fourth measure), Mozart’s Theme has repeated notes, the rhythm that accompanies Fuggi, fuggi, fuggi‘s Italian word, “cielo” [sky].
- Stylistically, the trill and dotted-eighth-sixteenth at the end of Mozart’s A section’s phrase resemble a vocal flourish reminiscent of Renaissance vocal music which was in vogue in the Classical period. Listen to Fuggi, fuggi, fuggi and you will hear a similar melodic embellishments at the ends of the phrases.
Mozart, Variations 5 and 11, K. 265
Mozart’s variations also exhibit features of La Mantovana:
- In Variation 5, Mozart’s B section features a descending chromatic line. As the melodic line abandons diatonic sounds, this section strongly resembles the Dorian sound in La Mantovana‘s original B section. It almost seems as though Mozart wanted to play around with the unusual Dorian sound but disguised it in a way that would still appeal to the new sensible Classical taste.
- Variation 11 (Adagio) begins with contrapuntal imitation. While this in and of itself doesn’t immediately seem to point to La Mantovana, it is interesting that the tune lends itself to being played or sung by several independent voices, in a type of musical chase similar to “Row, Row, Row Your Boat.”
- That the tune can be played in counterpoint as a canon suggests that the music may be much older than Biado’s La Mantovana. An earlier unknown contrapuntal version may have existed and Mozart may have known about it.
Mozart, Variation 8, K. 265
In light of the focus of this blog series, the most interesting variation of Mozart’s entire set is Variation 8. It is full of intelligent parallels to La Mantovana, almost like inside jokes.
- First, this variation is written in the minor. Remember that La Mantovana, the music upon which all of the tunes in this blog series are based, was set in the minor.
- Second, Mozart abandons the open interval of the fifth and chooses five quickly-ascending notes, recalling La Mantovana‘s opening melody.
So, not only is this variation in the minor, but the minor tonality together with five ascending pitches seems to be a concrete nod to La Mantovana. But there’s more.
- Mozart’s B section has a descending chromatic line similar to the one in Variation 5, again reflecting La Mantovana‘s Dorian flavour. However, the Dorian effect is even more pronounced in this variation because in the minor key, one would expect to hear a flat mediant (lowered third note of the scale). Instead, the chromatic line falls to the raised third, which gives a melodic twist strongly reminiscent of the Dorian sound of the Italian madrigal’s B section.
And Variation 8 is contrapuntal.
- Whereas in Variation 11 the second voice follows after only one measure and the imitation effect lasts for a total of four measures, Variation 8 in its entirety is characterized by imitative counterpoint. It begins by treating the tune like a fugal subject. The second voice follows after two measures at a fifth below. After wrapping up the A section with a switch to harmony in the bass voice, the imitation resumes again in the B section, this time with three voices. A four-measure phrase is imitated by two ‘chasing’ voices, both at octaves below.
- As mentioned above, the very fact that it’s possible to play and sing this tune in counterpoint suggests that it may have originally been created to be sung by independent parts like a round. This in turn, suggests that Mozart was familiar with Fuggi, fuggi, fuggi and knew it as a contrapuntal madrigal.
How Mozart’s travel influenced his variations
Was Mozart fully aware of the connection between the French folk song and the Italian madrigal? Had Mozart’s father (his only teacher) taught him about such things? When Mozart visited Italy as a teenager, did he hear La Mantovana performed? Did Mozart hear it performed as a canon (with voices in imitative counterpoint)?
One thing is sure, the young Mozart was part of a class of upwardly mobile musicians who had the unique opportunity to travel Europe. He lived in an age when few people strayed even a few miles away from their birthplaces in their lifetimes. Yet, at an early age Mozart was able to develop almost a bird’s eye view of music in Europe. After all, he visited or lived in: Austria, Belgium, the Czech Republic, England, France, the Holy Roman Empire (Germany), Italy, the Netherlands, Slovakia and Switzerland.
It is possible that Mozart was exposed to several of the tunes we’re discussing: La Mantovana in Italy, Ik zag Cecilia komen in Belgium, possibly Burlesque or a variant in his homeland, and the title most popular in his own time, Ah! vous dirai-je, maman in both Belgium and in France. If Mozart didn’t know the exact provenance of the music, he may have been astute enough to hear the similarities and deduce that they were all somehow musically connected.
And his exposure to several variants may have informed how he wrote his own variations, not just based on Ah! vous dirai-je, maman, but on a summation of several related tunes including La Mantovana.
Mozart blazed the trail
Mozart had an incredible ear for musical opportunity. In this simple tune he recognized a musical gold mine, saw the potential to develop it into much, much more.
In a way, he brought the tune full circle.
La Mantovana had begun as music performed in courts by trained musicians. The music was then picked up by ordinary folks (who probably didn’t read music) and was transformed into simple folk songs. Now Mozart, one of the most celebrated composers ever to live, picked it up and recharged it with his skill in composition and folded it back into a small masterpiece.
Other composers quickly followed suit and to this day, have been drawn to compose their own variations. While many composers have quoted the tune either briefly or extensively in their music, here’s a verified list of composers who have written actual sets of variations:
c. 1781-1782 – Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart – Twelve Variations in C Major on “Ah, vous dirai-je Maman”, K.265 (published 1785).
1783 – Michel Corrette – Variations on “Ah! vous dirai-je, maman“ from La belle Vielleuse.
c. 1785-90 – Johann Christoph Friedrich Bach – Variations on “Ah! vous dirai-je, maman“ in G major (published c. 1880).
Date? – Jean-Baptiste Cardon (1760-1803) – Variations on “Ah! vous dirai-je, maman“ for harp.
1828 – Christian Heinrich Rinck – Variations and finale for organ on “Ah! vous dirai-je, maman“, op. 90.
1914 – Erwin Schulhoff – Ten Variations on “Ah! vous dirai-je, maman” and Fugue, Op. 16. [No recording available.]
1914 – Ernst von Dohnányi – Variations on a Nursery Tune, Op. 25.
2000s – Michael Kieran Harvey’s multi-composer project: 70 More Variations on Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star
More to explore!
This is the third instalment of a series of blog posts on this seemingly ubiquitous 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 three main melodies mentioned in this post, Ah! vous dirai-je, maman, and the Theme and Variation 8 from Mozart’s Twelve Variations in C Major on “Ah, vous dirai-je Maman”, K.265, 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]
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]
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 songs. Coming soon!
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Video of the Week
Variations on Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star by Rebekah Maxner, Variation I. Composed in 1990 at the age of 16, the set of variations was entered into a young composer’s contest and captured first prize. Here’s the first variation: