Twinkling Possibilities: Performance Tips and Theory Tidbits for Mozart’s 12 Variations on ‘Ah vous dirai-je, Maman,’ Part 2

Part 1

Last week we looked at the theme and first six variations of this famous piano piece by Mozart. This week, we’ll pick up right where we left off with brief analyses of what Mozart does to make each variation unique as well as the physical piano techniques required to successfully play each variation.

I’ve included videos and exercises that will help if you’re having issues with the techniques required, and if you have any questions, you can email me at amy@girlinbluemusic.com or comment below! And here is a pdf of the piece with my suggested fingerings (it might help to follow along).

Variation 7

Analysis

Mozart begins this variation with a C major scale — looks like practicing those scales does pay off! In the second measure, you’ll see that the melody note is embedded within this scale, which really doesn’t actually sound as the regular melody note. Instead, after hearing so many iterations of the same melody, you might hear the G as a ghost note inside your own head.

This is sort of an example of fragmentation, a compositional device used to develop a musical idea by leaving out pieces of the idea.

After this, the melody returns, shown below in blue. The very last chord seems exactly as it should be, but if you follow the descending melody of the second half of the A section, you’ll see that the final C that closes the melody actually occurs in the wrong octaves!

In the second half of the A section, Mozart adds some upper harmony over the melody in the right hand, which fleshes it out more than before.

The other moment of interest is mm. 3–4 of the B section, in which he includes a staccato figure that’s just a fun way of closing out the end of a shorter phrase.

Technique

Playing the scale evenly and legato is the technical element unique to this variation. For success in scales (which you should already be familiar with if you’re playing this piece!), you definitely need to be aware of where your thumb goes (on every C and F). Whenever I have passages like this, I always mark where my thumb (1) goes, and it’s marked that way in the pdf at the end of this post.

Additionally, I want to share Josh Wright’s video of scales (it’s part of ProPractice, so this is just a free sample, but you can get a lot out of it):

The end of the A section, with the harmony added above, provides a good opportunity to practice healthy rotation.

[image]

There are two kinds of rotation in piano: wrist and arm. It’s used mainly to aid moving back and forth from each side of your hand in a healthy way that prevents injury, which means that it helps you maintain a strong but relaxed hand position.

Unfortunately, many beginner piano teachers don’t teach rotation to their students, as it is a difficult thing to master on top of the difficulties of learning finger independence.

There are a ton of videos on this, but here’s my favorite introduction to arm rotation that covers the basics as well as addresses potential issues that come up even in piano majors!

Here’s a short and sweet way to know you’re doing it correctly:

And here’s an in-depth 2-part introduction to the technique that includes a brief history of the technique from Steinway Artist, Graham Fitch:

Variation 8

Analysis

This is the minor variation! For this one, Mozart changes the key to the parallel minor, C minor, which means you now have to pay attention to 3 flats.

He again uses the suspension chain from Variation 2 but changes the role of the left hand. Until this point, the left hand had mostly been just supplying chords as accompaniment for the embellishments found in the right hand. This time, however, it gets its own countermelody that begins as an echo of the melody a perfect fifth below.

By the end of the second half of the A section, the left hand does play a harmonic role again and continues to do so in the B section.

Technique

The trickiest part of this variation is probably hand independence. It’s tough to play multiple melodies at once, especially if one is an echo. Unfortunately, there’s no trick to this skill other than practicing it a lot, but there are fun exercises that can help.

You can use any simple melody to try this out (not every melody sounds nice like this, but it’s a good way to practice)!

Variation 9

Analysis

Mozart flips back to major in this one and mimics the echo and staccato ideas from the previous variation. The only difference is these are clear quarter notes instead of eighth notes.

He also emphasizes the major-ness through his cadential figure at the end of each A section. This means that he clearly gives us scale step 5 to 1 in the bass. The middle voices (the bottom two notes of the right hand) move inward from D and F to an E, the chord member that defines whether it’s C major or minor. Finally, the melody (the top voice of the right hand) once again includes the leading tone (B) that leads to C and also emphasizes the major-ness of this variation, since B is now B♮ instead of the B♭ from the minor mode.

Technique

Because this variation is a culmination of techniques from the other variations, there’s nothing new to add! Just keep practicing the hand independence and staccato motions from earlier variations.

Variation 10

Analysis

This is another cool variation where the melody travels between the two hands and moves from the top of the staff to the bottom of the staff.

There’s a lot of chromatic motion in this one, meaning that instead of moving down mostly by step, Mozart has the melody descend by half-step, which causes accidentals to show up. He also includes these in the accompanying harmonies that are mostly played by the right hand.

Technique

Surprise, surprise, the piano techniques required here are similar to previous ones, but as a reminder the sixteenth-note figures played by the right hand should be played with comfortable rotation (described in Variation 7).

The new technique for this one is related to hand independence (described in Variation 8) but is a little more involved, as the left hand crosses over the right hand. This Nahre Sol video  should give you some fun exercises to practice. I definitely suggest hands separate practice, especially to make sure you can clearly and levelly articulate the melody.

Variation 11

Analysis

If you thought the minor variation (Variation 8) was surprising, get ready for this one. Mozart drops the tempo to Adagio (around 60–72 beats per minute). It’s striking and is probably my favorite of these variations for its sense of stillness in the context of the more rambunctious variations.

At the end of the A section, Mozart again lets the melody disappear. The measure that should contain a D that would connect E and C to close the phrase instead contains B as an important melodic note. This is important, as B is the leading tone in this key, and instead of leading directly to C, the B actualy leads to a suspension that then resolves to C, finally.

It’s this slow sense of delay that makes this variation so gratifying, to me.

Then the B section includes more surface activity with the left hand having faster rhythms. The right hand has these bouncy, short descending figures followed by a lot of quick scale and arpeggio work that ultimately closes with another suspension, but this time on G (like in the original theme).

The A section, of course, repeats to close out the variation with yet another suspension. I am a sucker for a good suspension, and this variation’s got them.

Technique

When I was learning this one, getting the rhythms to line up properly between the hands was my biggest issue, so take it slowly and write whatever lines or numbers help you keep track of where each note falls in relation to the overall beat.

The rapid descending repeated notes could also prove a challenge, so make sure you have solid fingering. I recommend switching fingers for these notes (2 3 for each repeated note). These are similar to the gesture and feel of a suspension, so try also to lean more on the first note of each repeated pairing.

Similarly, for the true suspensions that close each section, lean more on the first part, and then feel the release of tension with your body as the suspension resolves.

For a little guidance on how to do repeated notes quickly on the piano, here’s a helpful video from Josh Wright (even though he’s doing many more repeated notes than this variation requires!)

The last technical thing is the turns. Depending on your edition, you may have these written out or shown by a round squiggle. If you have the latter, just remember this means to play the written note, then a diatonic step up, the note again, then a diatonic (or sharpened, if there is a sharp next to the squiggle) note below. These should be played in a single gesture or movement, taking advantage of the rotation you practiced in Variation 7.

Variation 12

Analysis

The grand finale! We’ve made it! In true Mozart fashion, this entire piece closes bombastically. Both hands have a lot going on.

He pulls out all the stops by including the quick left hand figures, trills, block chords, scales, inner melodies. There is so much going on!

Because it is a culmination of pretty much everything that came before, there’s not a lot to say that hasn’t been said before. Mozart, however, does provide an excellent example of how to combine the same material in yet another way.

So if you’re a composer or an arranger trying to figure out how to put old things together in new ways, this set of variations is a great example to mimic and learn from.

The one big thing I will mention is that this is the one variation in which Mozart changes the overall form. This variation has more measures than the others and the original theme because he chooses to repeat the B section in its entirety.

Following the B section, we’d normally hear the A section again, but instead we get a coda full of scales and moments that are cadence-like but not really full cadences. Then finally, the last four measures ramp up to the final cadence that closes with a very full C major chord with four notes per hand. Calling it intense kind of feels like an understatement!

Technique

As mentioned in the analysis, this variation is a culmination of the other variations, so if you’ve mastered all of those other techniques, there’s not much more you’ll have to get on top of for this one.

Practicing Hanon exercises (mentioned in Variation 2) will help you considerably with most of the virtuosic figures in the right hand especially.

Pick fingerings that are easy on your hands and don’t require your fingers to remain spread for very long. And of course practice slowly when you start this. Don’t make speed a priority. Make it comfortable, and the speed will come naturally.

There’s a saying (in martial arts, fencing, boxing, who knows what else) that goes “Slow is smooth; smooth is fast.” The smoother you can get something, the faster it will just be, so focus on getting the notes comfortable and even, and you’ll just be faster.

Conclusion

It’s incredible how many different ways there are to change a simple melody into something impressive. Composers have always enjoyed games like this of “how many ways can I do the same thing?” Mozart could definitely have written more if he wanted to, but twelve is a sturdy number.

Because each of these variations uses a different combination of piano techniques, these are great for technique practice or warm ups.

I hope you enjoyed this two-part post on such a fun piece. It ended up a lot longer than I planned, so I’m creating a separate post for playing in the style of Mozart. Subscribe via WordPress or email to make sure you don’t miss it!

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

If you’re curious about piano and taking lessons or have any questions about piano or music in general, send me an email at amy@girlinbluemusic.com or visit my lessons page for more information!

One Reply to “Twinkling Possibilities: Performance Tips and Theory Tidbits for Mozart’s 12 Variations on ‘Ah vous dirai-je, Maman,’ Part 2”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.