Twinkling Possibilities: Performance Tips and Theory Tidbits for Mozart’s 12 Variations on ‘Ah vous dirai-je, Maman,’ Part 1

Mozart’s “Twinkle Twinkle Variations” rank among his more popular piano pieces, probably because of the humorous nature of concert pianists sitting down to play a child’s tune. (I love the laughter in this performance):

By the first variation, the true difficulty of this piece shines through. Because of this plot twist and the sentimental nature of the “Twinkle Twinkle” tune, many pianists seek to learn this (it was on my piano bucket list for sure!).

This post (in two parts) outlines the piano techniques required for success in each variation as well as a brief analysis of the individual variations to invite performers, composers, and listeners to think critically of the “Twinkle Twinkle Variations” and of the variation form as a whole. Many of the techniques described in these two posts rely on good fingering, so here is a pdf of the piece with my recommended fingering.

A caveat for pianists wanting to learn this piece: it is ranked as level 5 (medium/intermediate) by Henle, so if you’re not at a solid intermediate level, I recommend waiting a little bit before tackling this piece to avoid frustration and harmful technique. (See How to Pick Piano Technique to Increase Momentum and Avoid Frustration for tips on choosing repertoire, including challenge pieces)

Variation Form

Before we dive in, let’s get a brief reminder of variation form. Composers of this form write or use a musical idea (like the melody of “Twinkle Twinkle, Little Star”) and change its rhythm, harmony, articulation, dynamics, and many other parameters of what makes the theme unique.

The most important part of the definition of a variation is that it is both similar to and different from the original theme. Variations can be shown explicitly in the sheet music with numbers (like with this one) or be hidden within the music, such as inside a symphony. Your ear will know, especially if you practice looking at these similarities and differences, like we will through this post.

The Theme

Analysis

Because Mozart used an already-existing melody for his variations, the theme alone is already a sort of arrangement because of the addition of the harmony in the left hand. It may be simple, but it’s already more advanced than the first version of Twinkle Twinkle, Little Star most students learn (which is usually just the melody).

He also embellished the second half with a turn, giving a hint that this might be a little more challenging than a beginner could play. Because there are two clear sections in this piece, we will henceforth call them “A” (or “A section”) to refer to the first 8 measures and “B” (or “B section”) to refer to the next 8 measures (that goes G G F F E E D D and so on).

The harmony is pretty simple: the first 5 measures stick around C major, then move to F major for a couple of bars and then back to C. When the second half of the tune begins (after the repeat sign), the harmony switches to the dominant, G major, before moving back to C in m. 17 when the first half (or A section) returns.

Technique

Technique-wise, the right hand doesn’t have to move much at all if you’re not trying to play super legato (smooth and connected), just to reach up to the A.  In this case, your fingerings could be 1 1 4 4 5 5 and so on.

The most difficult part of this melody is probably the turns, which are easiest to play when all of those notes are part of one gesture. I like to think of it as my wrist guiding the action, and it dips in a slight circle toward the lowest note, C, and the fingers follow as relaxed as possible in one swoopy motion.

Some pianists choose to play this melody detached, as in the performance above, and others choose to play more legato, as in below.

To play this more legato, there are a couple of options. You could use the sustain pedal, as Schwamova does in this recording, or you could adjust the fingering to accommodate legato a little better. For this, I’d recommend using repeated-note fingerings, so the first Cs would be played by 2 1, followed by the A on 5, so that leap is legato. But it’s not necessary to do this, as the score is not marked legato, so it’s probably best not to be so fussy about the fingerings here.

Variation 1

Analysis

When the first variation begins, audience members are pretty sure that this is no longer a beginner’s piece. One of my favorite things about experiencing it live is seeing people’s reactions once the performer begins this variation.

The right hand of this variation shows one common compositional technique for creating variations: embellishment. The original melody is still present (albeit hard to see as it’s not on the downbeats of each measure), but Mozart added notes around the original melody notes. These are called neighbor tones.

Because the original melody doesn’t occur on the downbeats, we might also call this a rhythmic change.

You can see the original melody highlighted in blue in the image below:

Additionally, at the end of each section (m.31 and m. 48), Mozart adds a leading tone (B in this key, shown in purple in the image above) into the melody to emphasize the cadence or coming back to C.

The overall harmony (in the left hand) is almost identical to that of the Theme, but Mozart does add in a couple of chromatic notes (from outside the key) for color.

Technique

The sheer speed of the right hand notes makes this variation sound so impressive, even more so when considering some of the leaps and how they are marked legato. The performer can’t just jump their hand up. To be successful with this variation, you must pick fingerings wisely, especially if you have small hands like me!

My recommendation for small hands in the first measure is: 4 3 2 3 2 3 2 1 | 4. Having your thumb on the final C of the first measure gives your hand more room to smoothly accommodate the leap up to A. In this variation, I recommend fingerings that always have 1 before each of these leaps, so to figure them out, work backwards from those moments.

I’m including a pdf download of this piece with my recommended fingerings at the end of the second post (forthcoming — stay tuned!), so if you still aren’t sure how to figure out your own fingerings, this will help!

Variation 2

Analysis

The next variation moves the impressively speedy rhythms of the right hand into the left hand and adds a new challenge. The bass note (now the first left-hand note in every measure) still plays the C E F from the original theme, but it does so an octave lower than before.

The right hand employs finger legato, which is shown by the many ties in mm. 60–63. When the beginning part (the A section) returns, Mozart adds more chromatic harmony to give the piece more color and complexity.

This finger legato also creates a series of suspensions in mm. 60–63. Suspensions occur when a note that belongs in a chord, like the G in m. 60, is held out while the underlying harmony changes. In m. 61, the harmony changes to F major, which in this style doesn’t usually include G. This creates a sense of tension, and Mozart strings out two more suspensions after this.

Series of suspensions also give me the impression of sighing. They can create a great opportunity for expression, especially given the strict stylistic expectations of the classical style.

Although the left hand did adopt the 16th-note embellishments from the right hand in Variation 1, the notes aren’t exactly the same. Mozart adds more chromatic notes (shown by the sharps) in order to add more color and expressiveness into this variation.

In the last four measures of the A section, he uses the chromatic notes to descend by half step, which creates a little more tension, ending with A♯ B C. The A♯ serves as sort of a leading tone to the leading tone (B).

Technique

Note that the left hand is now marked legato. Again, good legato relies heavily upon smart fingerings. Here, for small hands, I recommend 5 1 3 2 1 2 3 1 | 5 (or 4) and repeat. Navigating these octave leaps efficiently relies on rotation, which is tough to describe in text alone, but Dr. Josh Wright has an excellent video explaining rotation, which you can apply to the left hand here.

The right hand’s difficulty in this variation stems from the finger legato and holding and releasing different notes at different times. It takes some serious concentration to first pay attention to which finger is releasing when, so definitely figure out your fingerings and stick to them!

Aloys Schmitt is famous for his five-finger preparatory exercises for piano, and he includes exercises (beginning at no. 34) where one finger holds while others move.

If you’re having trouble with the finger independence in this variation, I recommend adding some of the Schmitt exercises into your warmups/technique parts of your practice session and just take your time with them and focus on keeping each of your fingers relaxed but still engaged. They’re available on IMSLP for free or in a nice print copy by Alfred’s on Amazon, Thriftbooks, or AbeBooks (UK).

Josh Wright also has tutorials on the Schmitt exercises in his ProPractice Course, so that’s something to check out if you need more help on these!

Aside from the finger legato, the only other technical skill is the trill. It can be confusing to remember which notes are played in a trill, but for Classical, it’s usually the note that’s written and the note above it. During the Baroque and likely also the Classical period, the common practice was to start the trill on the notated note, but after Mozart, performers instead began trills on the note above it.

For this piece, then, the trill would most likely start D E D E, and you could do it as fast as you like. There’ll be more discussion on trills in the style of Mozart at the end of this post series.

The Schmitt exercises can help you prepare for trills, but there are other exercise books to explore if you’re interested, like Hanon (also available on IMSLP for free as well as on Amazon, Thriftbooks, and AbeBooks UK).

Finally, Nahre Sol also has a helpful video on trills:

 

Variation 3

Analysis

Like the first variation, Variation 3 embeds the melody within neighbor tones. Variation 3 also, however, adds arpeggios and other chromatic notes to embellish the melody as well as more drastically changes the rhythm.

Instead of dividing each quarter note into four 16th notes, this variation divides each quarter note into 3 triplet eighth notes.

The melody is highlighted in blue in the image below:

As you can see, Mozart also kept the leading tone in the melody in this variation (highlighted in purple).

For the left hand harmony, this variation is probably the clearest in showing the areas of tonic (the home key — C major) and dominant (the fifth scale step — G major). These appear in the left hand as repeated half notes above (for C major) and below (for G major) the original left hand harmony.

Mozart also adds thirds in the second half of the A section to fill out the left hand a little more.

Technique

For this variation I want to highlight arpeggios. Josh Wright has a couple of videos (one’s really old! — he’s upped his technology game since then) on arpeggios. One is a generic one, and the second one is specifically for people with small hands (like me) and is part of the VIP Masterclass Series, which you can get access to here.

Overall, like pretty much any piano technique, the point is to stay relaxed and to practice slowly. If you feel any kind of tightening or wincing (even if it’s in your back, which I’m guilty of), then you don’t have the technique down yet, and you should keep practicing slowly and build up the momentum over time.

That’s part of why you shouldn’t approach this piece until you’re near an intermediate level and have been doing arpeggios for a while.

The other tricky technique is the left hand thirds. Both Hanon and Schmitt (mentioned in Variation 2) include exercises for thirds.

There are a few videos out there on thirds, but I found this one from Josh Wright to be a helpful discussion of fingerings as well as technique, even though he’s talking specifically about Chopin’s Op.  25 No. 6. Even though it’s also part of the VIP Masterclass Series (access here), you can still get a lot from this free sample.

Variation 4

Analysis

Variation 4 is like a mashup of 2 and 3. The triplets from Variation 3 move into the left hand, and the suspensions and finger legato from Variation 2 return. So this is again an embellishment style of variation.

Technique

There’s not much to add here regarding technique. Simply apply the ideas from Variations 3 and 4, and you should be good to go. It’s like a freebie! Almost as good as when you realize the last 2 pages of a long work are just a written-out repeat of the beginning.

Variation 5

Analysis

Variation 5 is mostly a rhythmic variation, but because of the rests written in between each melody note, we might also consider it as a change in articulation. Instead of being legato like most of the previous variations, this variation has notes that are completely detached from each other.

It begins similarly to the original tune, with the second note in each measure coming in an eighth note later, which gives this variation a sort of “bouncy” quality. The second half of the A section, however, moves the melody to occur of the beat, which to me makes it feel like it’s stumbling.

The B section adds quicker rhythms and chromatic notes into the mix. It’s development and variation within a single variation: clever Mozart!

Technique

Note that this variation is marked piano. A tendency with newer pianists is to play detached notes loud, so playing at the correct dynamic is probably the trickiest part of this variation. Luckily, there are many fingerings available because you don’t have to worry about maintaining legato.

There are a few ways to play detached notes (also known as staccato, but these aren’t marked with the staccato dots) on the piano based on the different parts of your arm: finger, wrist, and arm. Which one you use depends on personal preference (which is more comfortable) and how much time you have between notes.

If you’re playing a quick piece with lots of repeated staccato notes, then finger staccato is probably most appropriate.

For this piece, if I were your teacher, I wouldn’t necessarily call these notes staccato to avoid any kind of jerky motions you might associate with it. Instead, I would recommend more of a finger staccato-like motion, where you draw your fingers into your palm after each note. This gives you soft control over the pitches, allowing you to keep them detached without accenting them.

In this video, Josh Wright goes over these types of staccato, and while it is helpful, definitely take it with a grain of salt for this variation:

The sixteenth-note figures will sound nice and be easier to play if you use a single gesture for them, like the single gesture I described for the turns in the Theme.

Variation 6

Analysis

Variation 6 is another combination of techniques from previous variations. Here we have the space in between each melody note from Variation 5 along with the sixteenth-note neighbor tones in the left hand.

In the B section, the right hand takes over the steady sixteenth notes, which has the melody for a moment (shown in blue). Then, the left hand actually adopts the melody for the first time in this entire piece. It’s the first time the B-section melody is heard in that lower register.

Technique

Again, because we’ve already covered the two difficult techniques here, there’s not much to say! For the quick sixteenth notes, choose your fingerings wisely, so you can stay relaxed. For the chords that have rests between them in the right hand, use a stroking motion, and keep your hand strong but relaxed.

If you do find you’re having trouble hitting the chords correctly, you might try this chord exercise from Josh Wright:

Concluding Thoughts

So here’s half of the variations with little theoretical tidbits about each as well as strategies for mastering the technical requirements of each. I know there are a lot of Josh Wright videos; it’s because I’ve found his instruction so helpful in my own personal experience!

The final 6 variations as well as a little bit about playing in the style of Mozart will come in the second part of this post, so keep a look out for that! If you don’t want to miss it, be sure to subscribe via WordPress or email (you’ll only get notifications of new posts, nothing more)

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If you liked this post, hit that like button below and share with your friends! I’m also offering private online piano lessons, so be sure to check out my lessons page for more information. Happy pianoing!

Part 2

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