Nannerl recorded that her brother started composing simple keyboard pieces around age 5, and his first symphony at age 8. By that time he had already travelled to many of the important cities of Europe and actually wrote that first symphony to pass the time while his father recovered from a cold when they were in England.
On the way to England they had stopped in Paris where a collection of folk songs had been published just a few years earlier, in 1761. That collection included a very attractive little song, without lyrics, said to have been created in the then popular pastoral style some 20 years earlier by author or authors unknown.
This tune proved so appealing that it was published again in Paris in 1774, this time with lyrics of a rather sophisticated nature added. "Ah! vous dirai-je, Maman" is the first line of an anonymous love poem of the time. Of course it’s about love; it’s French isn’t it? “Oh! Shall I tell you, Mother / What is tormenting me?” the poem begins, and goes on to exclaim: “Can anyone live without love?” These lyrics speak of teenage angst rather than nursery rhyme cuteness, but that was soon to change.
In 1806 a young English poet, Jane Taylor, published a six-stanza poem called The Star in a book of Rhymes for the Nursery. Whether intended or not, Taylor’s poem fit very nicely onto this French folk song. In fact, others must have thought so too and her words were eventually printed together with that music in an 1838 song book. And thus it was that what we now know as “Twinkle, twinkle, little star” finally made its first appearance on the world’s stage in that form in the second year of the reign of Queen Victoria.
So how did we come to associate this well-known English nursery rhyme and French folk song with Mozart, especially in Suzuki circles? Because both he and Dr. Suzuki knew a good melody when they heard it. Mozart wrote a splendid set of keyboard variations on this tune around 1781 or 82. But he called it “Ah! Vous dirai-je, maman” which shows he knew the melody only after its French publication of 1774.
He certainly wasn’t the only composer attracted to all the possibilities for variation offered by this simple but elegant tune. Johann Christoph Friedrich Bach, 9th son of J.S., did the same thing around the same time, and there have been other sets written since, but none by composers with names of the musical appeal of Mozart. (I particularly recommend the Variations on a Nursery Tune for piano and orchestra by Ernst von Dohnanyi, perhaps because of its subtitle: For the enjoyment of humorous people and for the annoyance of others.)
I’m sure these musicians saw the same things in this melody that we all point out to our eager music students. Its immediately innocent nature using just six notes of the scale, a very simple rhythm pattern, and much repetition belies a more sophisticated emotional tone set by the refusal of the middle section to return to the tonic.
Of course this charming melody is also absolutely ideal for creating good posture for little left hands on bowed stringed instruments, and we should all praise Dr. Suzuki for using it so cleverly at the beginning of his method. Just don’t say it was written by Mozart.
A very special thanks to Murray's Music for contributing this article to the Music for Young Violinists Project!