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How the Melody of "Ah! vous dirai-je, maman" Spread to the World

“Ah! vous dirai-je, maman” is a French children’s melody or song which was popularized by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart when he created  “Twelve Variations” based on it. Since it’s composition, several different versions of it have been created using diverse themes and lyrics.


The origin of "Ah! vous dirai-je, maman" is a bit clouted, with an anonymous pastoral song being credited with the melody. The song dates back to 1740, while the lyrics incorporated within are relatively new. In 1761, the melody was first published, while the first publication of the melody combined with the lyrics goes back to 1774. The printed version was a part of volume II of “Recueil de Romances” by Charles de Lusse. It was published as “La Confidence naïve” in Brussels.

Mozart, black sheep, ABC, Stars

Musical Overview 

Several songs over the years have been based on this melody, and also in several languages. In English alone, three popular children's songs are based on it - “Alphabet Song,” “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star,” and “Baa, Baa, Black Sheep.” Other prominent versions include “Morgen kommt der Weihnachtsmann” (Germany), “Hull a pelyhes fehér hó” (Hungary), “Campanita del lugar” (Spain), and “Daha Dün Annemizin” (Turkey).

Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star

The lyrics of this popular lullaby are taken from Jane Taylor’s English poem, “The Star.” In spite of the lyrics having five stanzas, only the first stanza is popular worldwide. The poem was first published in 1806 in the book titled “Rhymes for the Nursery.” The earliest publication of the poem, along with music, is in Volume III of the “The Singing Master.

Baa, Baa, Black Sheep 

In 1744, this popular rhyme was first published in the Pretty Song Book by Tommy Thumb. A. H. Rosewig later incorporated the music in “Nursery Songs and Game.” It was published in 1879 in Philadelphia.

The Alphabet Song

The Alphabet Song was first published in 1835 in Boston. Charles Bradlee owned the copyright of the piece and attributed Louis Le Maire for the musical arrangement. The piece was titled “The A.B.C.”

The Wolfgang Effect

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart crafted 12 variations of “Ah! vous dirai-je, maman” for piano, somewhere between the time period of 1781 to 1782. The complete piece comprises 13 sections. The first section of the piece is the central theme, with the other twelve sections consisting of the 12 variations (I to XII). The variations “XI” and “XII” are distinct, having “tempo indications,” followed by “Adagio” and “Allegro.”

The origin of these variations was widely speculated to be 1778 (April to September) when Mozart was residing in Paris. This was based on the assumption that the original melody was French, and it could only have been picked up by the composer while being in France. The piece was further renumbered chronologically to “K. 300e” from “K. 265” in Mozart’s composition catalog due to this presumption. However, further analysis of the composer’s manuscript of the piece indicated either 1781 or 1782 as the most probable date. In 1785, the variations were first publicly published in Vienna. Some unique features or highlights of each variation is given below:

Variation 1

The melody is performed with the right hand, which is dressed up with running “sixteenth notes.”

Variation 2  

Here, the left hand performs the running sixteenth action, with an emphasis on a neighboring tone. There is a pinch of chromaticism at the end, as the melody is performed with the right hand again.

Variation 3

A new triplet figure is introduced by the right hand while maintaining the melody of the theme.

Variation 4 

The left hand switches place with the right, taking over the triplet figure. The right hand takes care of the melody.

Variation 5 

This variant offers syncopated rhythms utilizing both hands. The original harmonies heard in the theme are preserved here, albeit until measure “129.” The right hand subsequently performs some downward chromaticism.

Variation 6

The right hand features the melody, in chord format, albeit through quick “eighth note spurts.” A neighboring tone is also present, moving slowly upwards. During the middle part, there are 2 “hand switch” points. The left hand performs the running “sixteenth notes.”

Variation 7

The right hand has a sixteenth note running scale pattern, while the melody is played using the left hand.

Variation 8

This variation is presented in “C minor,” a parallel minor to “C major,” the original key. However, there are perceivable limitations present between the right and left hands.

Variation 9 

The melody in each note of this variation is sharply separated from the others, i.e., a “Staccato.” It almost bears a striking resemblance to the original theme. Every two measures, the left hand repeats the right hand’s phrase, creating an echo effect.

Variation 10

In this variation, the left hand plays a major part in the right hand “clef.” The right hand embellishes the melody started by the left hand. The left hand first plays a single note, and the right hand continues from that, playing a quick pattern of the “sixteenth note” that goes up and back down a fourth, respectively.

Variation 11

The tempo of this variation is slow throughout, although the basic harmonies remain the same. However, being a bit lethargic, it is less prominent to a listener’s ears. The right plays the melody (32nd notes) and offers a “rubato” type free-flowing feel.

Variation 12 

It offers a summary of the previous variations as the tempo takes off quite nicely, acting as a finale. The left hand duplicates its actions in Variation 2, as the right hand concentrates on a “decorated melody.” The left hand continues playing fast and running notes until the middle, where a lot of trills are involved. After that, both hands play the “sixteenth note.” The final part of the variation closes off with the right hand playing rising “sixteenth notes.”

Usage in Popular Culture

There are various classical compositions that have taken inspiration from this tune:

  • In 1781-1782, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart created “Twelve Variations” based on this French melody. 
  • Jean-Baptiste Cardon created a variation of the melody for the harp. 
  • The German composer Theodor von Schacht used the melody in his clarinet concerto while crafting the 3rd movement. It was created on the scale “B flat major.” 
  • Christian Heinrich Rinck used the melody to create finale and variations for the organ. It was published in 1828.   
  • In 1849, Adolphe Adam used the melody to create Bravura Variations for the opera titled “Le toréador.” 
  • Johann Christoph Friedrich Bach crafted some variations on this melody in “G major.” it was finally published in 1880. 
  • In 1883, Franz Liszt used the melody of “Ah! vous dirai-je, maman” while creating Album Leaf. 
  • In 1886, the tune was quoted in the 12th movement of the song “The Carnival of the Animals” by Camille Saint-Saëns.  
  • In 1914, Ernst von Dohnányi utilized the tune in the song titled “Variations on a Nursery Tune, Op. 25.” 
  • In 1914, Erwin Schulhoff crafted 10 variations on the French melody.  
  • In 1948, Harl McDonald used the melody in the second theme of the first movement of “Children's Symphony.”
  • In 1962, Xavier Montsalvatge utilized “Ah! vous dirai-je, maman” in the song titled “Sonatine pour Yvette” in the Allegretto (3rd movement).  
  • In 2000, John Corigliano used the melody in the song “The Mannheim Rocket.”

“Ah! vous dirai-je, maman” or “Shall I tell you, Mother” is a masterpiece in its own right. The opening tone is bright, arresting, and immediately commands the listener’s attention. What ultimately emerges is a legendary tune of great charm, variety, and vibrancy forever etched in the echelons of musical history.



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