To my delight yesterday, WQXR (please let us do a late-night infomercial for you someday!) played a Mozart piece tortuously titled, “12 Variations in C Major on “Ah vous dirai-je, Maman”, K. 265.” Now, the reader (s) of our blog will know what the K stands for, and it’s not potassium. Mozart’s title was “Zwölf Variationen in C über das französische Lied „Ah, vous dirai-je Maman“ KV 265.” I note, uselessly, that the English translation drops the modifying phrase “the French song,” probably because the title of the song is in French. In other words, duh, Mozart.
This is a lovely little piece (I don’t think I’ve ever heard anything Wolfie wrote that wasn’t lovely, but still) that I think is great for kids and is also exemplary employment of theme and variation. Don’t forget that Sibling Variation 1 (or does that make her the theme?) wrote a guide to classical music for kids!
What, exactly, is this so-called French children’s song, “Ah, vous dirai-je, Maman”? Melodically, most listeners will hear it as “Twinkle, twinkle, little star” though the tune is also used for asking black sheep how much wool they have and reciting the alphabet. Now, “Twinkle, twinkle” is a staple of childhood bedrooms across the land, and with good reason (staring up at the stars and wondering about life has sparked a lot of creativity in humans over the millennia and should be encouraged). But the lyrics of the French song are, in my mind, quite hilarious. Noting the formal “vous,” the song basically boils down to: candy > grown-up stuff. And that’s hard to argue with, most days. Et mais oui, one would never tutoyer when speaking grandly of candy’s value!
Ah ! Vous dirai-je Maman
Ce qui cause mon tourment ?
Papa veut que je raisonne
Comme une grande personne
Moi je dis que les bonbons
Valent mieux que la raison.
Oh! Shall I tell you, Mommy
What is tormenting me?
Daddy wants me to reason
Like a grown-up person,
Me, I say that sweets
Are worth more than reasoning.
So which came first, French candy theory or English astronomy? It would appear that Gaul is the origin in this case. According to a couple of Internet sources (not pretending to scholarship here), the tune was first published in Paris in 1761 without words.
Mozart’s variations on this theme were first published in Vienna in 1785. Here is Walter Gieseking playing the piece:
You have to love the appearance of the minor key after 3:00 (de rigueur in theme & variation)! And I swear there are small Bach quotes after 4:00 (one of the few composers the little genius actually acknowledged as also having talent). But whether your bag is Mozart, theme/variation, or candy, this is a fine piece for your listening pleasure.