The Origin of Twinkle Twinkle Little Star

A tiny star on a field of glitter

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What do the following nursery rhymes have in common: Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, Baa, Baa, Black Sheep, and The Alphabet Song? They all share the same tune! The famous melody is also used in many other songs including German, Hungarian, Spanish, and Turkish Christmas carols. So who composed this famous tune? Many people think it was Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, but that's not true. The tune is actually an old French melody titled "Ah! Vous Dirai-Je, Maman" ("Shall I tell you, Mother?") that first appeared without words in Les Amusements d'une Heure et Demy by M. Bouin in Paris in 1761. Twenty years later, when Mozart was 25 or 26, he composed a set of 12 improvisations based on "Ah! Vous Dirai-Je, Maman."

Les Amusements d'une Heure et Demy

Published in Paris in 1761, Les Amusements d'une Heure et Demy is a collection of six divertissements champêtre, meaning a collection of six "country entertainment" or music for garden parties, by Mr. Boüin for violins, flutes, oboe, pardessus de viole (the highest pitched instrument in the strings family often played by women in France), and bagpipe. (View the original publication of Les Amusements d'une Heure et Demy thanks to the work of the National Library of France who digitized the complete score and made it available online for free.)  Garden parties were extremely popular in 18th century France. Despite the humble title, this form of entertainment was nothing short of extravagant; even parts of Versailles Palace's parks were transformed to accommodate these ostentatious affairs. Depending on the garden party's host, orchestras could be hidden among the trees and shrubbery, guests could dress in costume, pavilions could be built, and lavish banquets could be held.

"Ah! Vous Dirai-Je, Maman" Lyrics

"Ah! Vous Dirai-Je, Maman" is the first divertissement champêtre in Mr. Boüin's 1761 publication listed above. The earliest known publication of both the music and the lyrics together is M.D.L.'s 2nd volume of Recueil de Romances (History of Romances)M.D.L., a.k.a. Charles de Lusse, was an 18th-century French composer, writer, and flutist.

French Lyrics
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.

English Translation
Ah! Shall I tell you, Mother,
What causes my torment?
Father wants me to reason
As an adult, but
I say that sweets are
Better than reason.

Mozart's 12 Variations of "Ah! Vous Dirai-Je, Maman" K.265

Mozart composed a set of 12 variations based on "Ah! Vous dirai-je maman" for piano when he was 25 or 26 years old. Historians aren't able to accurately pin down the date of composition, but many believe Mozart would have likely heard and composed the French melody while he was in Paris between April and September of 1778. When organizing his catalog of music, musicologists renumbered the piece K.300e instead of the original K.265. (If you are unfamiliar with Mozart's K-numbers, it's actually pretty simple to understand. Ludwig von Köchel (1800-1877) was a German musicologist, botanist, writer, publisher, and well-known scholar. One of his many endeavors was to catalog all of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's compositions in chronological order. After painstakingly scouring through countless documents, letters, correspondences, scores, notes, books, and more, Köchel was able to catalog 626 pieces of music. He also added an addendum that included lost authentic works, fragments by Mozart, works by Mozart transcribed by others, doubtful works, and misattributed works. There have been several major revisions to Köchel's 500+ page catalog, so you'll often find pieces with multiple K-numbers.) The finished set of Mozart's 12 variations were published in Vienna in 1785. View Mozart's 12 Variations of "Ah! Vous Dirai-Je, Maman" K.265.

Twinkle Twinkle Little StarBaa, Baa, Black Sheep, and The Alphabet Song

  • The lyrics to Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star, come from a poem titled "The Star" written by the English poet, Jane Taylor (1783-1824). Taylor published the poem in her book Rhymes for the Nursery in London in 1806. The earliest known appearance of the poem set to music is likely in The Singing Master - Volume III - First Class Tune Book.
  • Baa, Baa, Black Sheep was published without music in Tommy Thumb's Pretty Song Book in 1744 and later set to music in A. H. Rosewig's (Illustrated National) Nursery Songs and Games, which was published in Philadelphia in 1879.
  • In 1835, the Alphabet Song was published in Boston by Charles Bradlee, who received a copyright for the piece, attributing the musical arrangement to Louis Le Maire. He titled the piece "The A.B.C., a German air with variations for the flute with an easy accompaniment for the pianoforte".​