The Twelve Variations by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart…Composition #27/50: Keepin’ It Classy

A young Mozart at Versailles.

For a short while during the 1700s, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart lived in Paris, France. Like many who had come to live there before him, Mozart was inspired by the culture of the French people. In particular, he was delighted by a simple French folk song entitled “Ah! Vous dirai-je, Maman”. The melody of this folk song is universally recognized as the foundation of three classic children’s songs: “Baa, Baa, Black Sheep”, “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” and the “ABC song”. If you sing each song in your head, you will notice that the melody is exactly the same for each song and that, not only that, you can interchange the lyrics from one song to the other without losing any of the melodic flow at all.

What Mozart did with this folk song is something in music known as theme and variation. What that means is that a composer such as Mozart will begin the composition with a standard set piece of music which will be played in its entirety. This is known as the theme. Then, the composer will replay that original set piece but alter it in one specific way each time. This is known as the variation. In the specific case of “Ah! Vous dirai-je, Maman”, Mozart played the original “Twinkle, Twinkle” version as the theme and then altered it in twelve ways (such as rhythmically, melodically, harmonically, by changing the timbre, the orchestration and so on). By creating these twelve variations, Mozart was showing other composers, as well as his audience, that it was possible to take a well-known composition and present it in original and imaginative ways that all created something new and fresh while, at the same time, maintaining the integrity of the foundational piece. By doing so, Mozart declared that it was within the realm of possibility to re-imagine the entire scope of all music created by humans up until that time.

Needless to say, Mozart’s ideas were often of a revolutionary nature that didn’t always work in harmony with the existing structured mindset possessed by many composers at the time. Mozart lived during a time period in which classical compositions were supposed to fit a certain mold. He found these expectations too restrictive and, as a result, often took delight in tweaking the noses of the musical establishment, as it were, by creating pieces such as his Twelve Variations. By insisting to the authorities at the various royal courts that he frequented that it was possible to alter existing works in ways that were exciting and new and yet still sounded like the original work, he was forcing them to accept the notion that the rules of musical composition weren’t set in stone. Granting future composers the freedom to experiment with musical form was one of the most important legacies that Mozart left behind after his death. He accomplished this in part because of his Twelve Variations on “Ah! Vous dirai-je, Maman”.

The Twelve Variations scene from the Your Lie In April anime.

One of the things I enjoy about the research I do into the stories of these musical pieces is that sometimes something unexpected pops up which takes me in a whole new direction. One such instance of this occurred during my research into the Twelve Variations. While listening to this work on YouTube, I kept reading listener comments that stated something along the lines, “Who else is here because of Your Lie In April?” I had no idea what Your Lie In April was so I went down the rabbit hole and began researching that topic. Here is what I found. In Japan, there is a very popular art form known as Manga. For lack of a better comparative term, Japanese manga translates roughly the same as North American comic books. We might simply call that form of artistic expression as being “comics”. In Japan, they call it “manga”. So anyway, in Japan there was a manga series that was based upon music. That series was called Your Lie in April. The series was released in serial form, meaning one chapter at a time. The story involved a child prodigy who was an award-winning pianist. This child was driven by his mother to attain a level of perfection that made his stage presence and his playing almost seem robotic. Despite that, he inspires a young girl to take up the violin. She does so with dreams of one day playing on stage with the young man. Eventually the two meet and become friends. Then, a tragedy happens. The mother of the pianist dies from an illness. The boy finds that he can no longer hear the piano when it plays, and he lapses into a form of depression because his gift appears to have been taken from him just as his mother was. The young girl seeks to nurture his soul back so that he will attempt to perform again and that she can do it with him. I won’t spoil the ending by giving it away, but Your Lie In April had a very emotional ending, to say the least.

Because the manga was about music but was in two-dimensional book form, many felt as though something was missing. So, an animé (or, live action animated version) of the manga was created for television. It aired in episodic fashion in Japan a few years ago. Because the story was being told like a movie now, all of the classical music that the pianist and his violinist friend were practicing and performing could be played aloud in the animé. On episode #3 of the series, the pianist’s mother had just died and he was discovering that he couldn’t play the piano anymore. The young girl was trying to cheer him up in a café. Suddenly, two young children begin to play Mozart’s Twelve Variations on a piano located in the café. (Remember, the tune is just “Twinkle, Twinkle”). The violinist asks her friend if he can hear those notes and guides him over to where the little girls are playing. They recognize him as being the famous child prodigy they had seen on TV and ask him to play with them. With encouragement, he begins to play for the first time since his mother had passed away, only to find the notes are elusive and he cannot even play “Twinkle, Twinkle” anymore. This scene can be viewed by clicking here.

I have always believed in the power of creativity. The act of creating something out of nothing is absolutely exhilarating! Whether it is me with the blank screen that appears before me as I begin each post or a chef who gathers the ingredients that will combine to make a feast or a composer who takes a blank sheet of paper and fills it with squiggles that play as melodies, being able to create something new and original that may bring pleasure to others is what motivates me and so many others to do what we do each day of our lives. It was what motivated a creative genius like Mozart to explore and surpass the boundaries of what was possible during his lifetime in the world of classical composition. It is, also, the loss of that creative ability that quickly drained the joy away from the young pianist in the animé Your Lie In April. Being a creator is important. So, give your children crayons and blank paper, along with the colouring books with pre-drawn pictures. Let them make their marks and tell their stories accordingly. Our imagination is one of the most precious aspects of ourselves, along with our hearts and needs to be protected and nurtured and unleashed as required. Just as we do by exercising to keep our bodies healthy, take some time today (and every day) for a little play time. It will do wonders for your imagination and it will do wonders for your soul. Now that you have read this post….go and play! Have some fun! I will see you again next time with a whole new story. Until then, take care. Bye for now.

The link to the video for the composition “The Twelve Variations” by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart can be found here.

The link to the official website of the Mozart Museum can be found here.

The link to the world’s best classical music radio station…Classical 103.1…which broadcasts from my hometown of Cobourg, Ontario, Canada can be found here.

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