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Mozart 12 Variations Ah, vous dirai je, maman KV 265

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Mozart 12 Variations Ah, vous dirai je, maman KV 265 with sheet music

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Variation form was one Mozart frequently employed in the solo piano extemporizations for which his concerts were famed (cf. K. 398 and K. 455). The present set is probably Mozart‘s best known set of variations, the French song on which they are based being familiar in the English-speaking world as the nursery tunes “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” or “Baa-Baa Black Sheep.” Traditionally assigned to the disastrous summer of 1778 during which Mozart‘s mother fell ill and died in Paris during their sojourn in the French capital, the work according to recent research was probably composed in Vienna in either 1781 or 1782.

The variations are a perfect example of Mozart‘s oft-demonstrated ability to build a substantial work from the simplest (and, in this instance, deliberately childish) materials. Particularly noteworthy is the chromatic writing in Variation 8 and the near-tragic tone of the minor mode Variation 9. The work was one of three sets of variations (the others are K. 398 in F and K. 455 in G) published in Vienna by Torricella in 1785.

Twelve Variations on “Ah, vous dirai-je, Maman,” K 265, set of variations for solo piano composed by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and published in Vienna in 1785. The variations are based upon the French folk song “Ah, vous dirai-je, Maman” (English: “Ah, Mother, if I could tell you”), with the same melody as that of the English-language nursery song “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.”

The work begins by stating the basic theme and proceeds by offering variations in rhythm, harmony, and texture. The simplicity and familiarity of the original theme make this work a paradigmatic example of musical variation; despite elaborate modification and ornamentation, the popular tune remains recognizable throughout. The final variation recapitulates the earlier variations in a dazzling show of technical virtuosity.

This work was composed for solo piano and consists of 13 sections: the first section is the theme, the other sections are Variations I to XII. Only Variations XI and XII have tempo indications, Adagio and Allegro respectively.

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For a time, it was thought that these variations were composed in 1778, while Mozart stayed in Paris from April to September in that year, the assumption being that the melody of a French song could only have been picked up by Mozart while residing in France. For this presumed composition date, the composition was renumbered from K. 265 to K. 300e in the chronological catalog of Mozart’s compositions. Later analysis of Mozart’s manuscript of the composition by Wolfgang Plath rather indicated 1781/1782 as the probable composition date.

The variations were first published in Vienna in 1785.

Mozart’s Köchel catalog

The Köchel catalog (German: Köchel-Verzeichnis) is a chronological catalog of compositions by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, originally created by Ludwig von Köchel, in which the entries are abbreviated K., or KV. The numbers of the Köchel catalog reflect the continuing establishment of a complete chronology of Mozart’s works, and provide a shorthand reference to the compositions.

According to Köchel’s counting, Requiem in D minor is the 626th piece Mozart composed, thus is designated K. 626; Köchel’s original catalog (1862) has been revised twice; catalog numbers from the sixth edition are indicated either by parentheses or by superscript: K. 49 (47d) or K.6 47d.

In the decades after Mozart’s death there were several attempts to catalog his compositions, for example by Franz Gleißner and Johann Anton André (published in 1833), but it was not until 1862 that Ludwig von Köchel succeeded in producing a comprehensive listing. Köchel’s 551-page catalog was titled Chronologisch-thematisches Verzeichnis sämmtlicher Tonwerke W. A. Mozarts (Chronological-thematic Catalog of the Complete Musical Works of W. A. Mozart).

Köchel attempted to arrange the works in chronological order, but many compositions written before 1784 could only be estimated, although Leopold Mozart had compiled a partial list of his son’s earlier works; Mozart’s catalog of his own compositions (begun in February 1784 with K. 449) allows relatively precise dating of many of his later works. The catalog included the opening bars of each piece, known as an incipit. Köchel divided the corpus into a main chronology of 626 works, and five appendices (Anhänge in German, abbreviated to Anh.) The appendices (Anh. I-V) included:

  • I – Lost authentic works
  • II – Fragments by Mozart
  • III – Works by Mozart transcribed by others
  • IV – Doubtful works
  • V – Misattributed works

Since Köchel published his original catalog in 1863 (now referred to as K1), the dating of Mozart’s compositions has been subject to constant revision. Many more pieces have since been found, re-dated, re-attributed and re-numbered, requiring three revised editions of the catalog. Subsequent editions – especially the third edition (K3) by Alfred Einstein (1937), and the sixth edition (K6) by Franz Giegling, Gerd Sievers [de], and Alexander Weinmann [de] (1964) – have reflected attempts to arrange the growing list of works in a more accurate chronological order, according to various levels of scholarship.

A major shortcoming of K1 was that there was no room to expand the strictly sequential numbering in the main catalog to allow for any new discoveries or further reassessment of existing works. For the 1937 edition (K3) Einstein (following the analyses of Théodore de Wyzewa and Georges de St. Foix) reassigned a number of works from the original K1 appendices into the main catalog by interpolating new numbers into the main sequence with a lower-case letter suffix. In K6 some of these were reassessed in the light of scholarship since 1937 and returned to the re-worked appendices:

  • K. 626a
    • K. 626a I – 64 cadenzas by Mozart to his own keyboard concertos
    • K. 626a II – Cadenzas by Mozart to keyboard concertos by other composers
  • K. 626b – 42 sketches & other fragments by Mozart (replacing K3 Anh. II)
  • Anh. A – Copies by Mozart of other composers’ works
  • Anh. B – Works by Mozart transcribed by others
  • Anh. C – Doubtful and misattributed vocal (C.1–10) and instrumental (C.11-30) works

For example, the Divertimento for Wind Octet in E♭ was numbered Anh. 226 in K1; Einstein placed it in the K3 main catalog as K. 196e, between K. 196 and K. 197; K6 reassigned it again to the ‘doubtful’ appendix C as Anh. C 17.01. Some works in Anh. A have been identified since 1965 as by Leopold Mozart. Many works in Anh. C have since been more reliably assigned to other composers, or to Mozart himself.