A little old-school new school for the new-school old school

April 7, 2007 at 10:00 am 4 comments

Mozart’s Ah, vous dirai-je Maman variations (K 265) stand as a quintessential example of the genre.  [Access the score via the Neue Mozart Ausgabe]  However, little else has been gained from this piece since its composition in 1776, 1778, or perhaps at some point during 1781-1782.* Beyond serving as a fifteen-minute lecture in an introduction to music course, does K 265 have any broader application?  Let’s apply “topics” and situate it among Enlightenment thought.

While Rousseau believed that people were naturally free to exist in their own space, whatever and wherever that may be, as he states in the first line of his essay The Social Contract, “Man is born free; and everywhere he is in chains.”** In the years preceding the French Revolution, the general population became “enlightened” to this and making increasing successful attempts to liberate themselves.

This is reflected musically in K 265.

Theme: “March” –

Even, quarter note against quarter note, first species counterpoint.  In her book Rhythmic Gesture in Mozart, Wendy Allanbrook regards the “march” as the artful movement of a body in time, “the bare reshaping of ordinary human locomotion…and thus is an example of the bond between gesture and expression in its most rudimentary form.”***

Variation I:  “Duple Allemande” –

During the eighteenth century, the contredanse became one of the leading dances and “entered the repertoire while a new democratization of social life was taking place in Europe.”****This dance hall topic moves the pedestrian melody into third species counterpoint, with occasional chromatic additions.

Variation II:  “Gavotte” –

Further harmonic growth stimulates the melody to continue its development, now in fourth species counterpoint.  In relation to the original/traditional barring of this melody, the second variation resembles a Gavotte: the melody begins on beat three with a movement leading to beat one and added suspensions provide a typical melodic fall to the downbeat.  The Gavotte is often associated with the pastoral.*****

Variation III:  “Pastorale” –

The melody removes itself from the assumed elements of the learned style.  The intervallic motion of the triplets outlines intervals of the fifth which call to mind a shepherd’s dance and far off hunting horns.  Reference is made to the rustic musette through the constant drone of half notes on the dominant G.

Variation IV:  Mixed –

The triple against double motion of the preceding variation provides the foundation for the suspension-adorned melody of the second variation, introducing elements of the learned style to those of the pastorale and situating the tune between opposing musical worlds.

Variation V:  “Angloise” –

Perhaps more important than this light, duple-beat form of the contredanse, is the feeling of space.  There is always a note sounding, yet, over 30 beats of eighth- and quarter-note rests are present, double the total amount of rests previously incorporated.

Variation VI:  “Duple Allemande / Musette” –

Mozart maintains the contredanse structure, now quicker with a constant beat and uncomplicated rhythms.  The pastoral association returns through incorporation of the drone in the B section.  However, the virtuosity expressed by the running sixteenth notes points this dance and the perception of the melody decidedly towards the aristocratic.

Variation VII:  ?? –

The sixteenth note motion carries through, but it loses its contredanse feel.  In fact, starting here, the variations shy away from relying only on dance topics.  Mozart begins to rely on the numerous compositional elements previously introduced to the melody: the chromatic cadence of variation two, full beats of rest, etc.

Variation VIII:  “Learned Style” –

A sudden switch from C major to the parallel C minor transforms the tune from a terrestrial dance to an elevated statement of elegance.  Three-part fugal imitation is accompanied by contrapuntal dissonances and suspensions.

Variation IX:  “Learned Style” –

Returning to major, the overall movement of the melody in this variation calls to mind the original march of the theme.  This reference serves to show how the melody has evolved, while still continuing along its course.  The cadential figure in the final two bars of each binary section interrupt with a punctuation of the gavotte.

Variation X:  “Virtuosic” –

Pianistic virtuosity dominates this variation.  The familiar cadential pattern becomes a series of resolving diminished seventh chords chromatically pulling the melody downwards to the cadence.  Mozart seems, for the first time, to have removed his support, giving the melody nothing on which to stand.  This obscuring of the tune, however, allows for the successful and convincing reemergence of the melody as the variation set reaches its peak.

Variation XI:  “French Overture” –

An adagio tempo marking, dotted rhythms, processional horn calls (with response), and ornamented melodies bring a new level of refinement to this variation with a B section in the sensibility style.  This variation is almost three times as long as the others, giving the listener the opportunity to consider how natural the melody sounds in this new elevated incarnation.

Variation XII:  “Triple Allemande” –

The common folksong melody has demonstrated its capacity for presentation as a refined French Overture, thus fulfilling Rousseau’s notion of freedom.  Punctuating this, Mozart lifts the melody out of the duple meter that has dominated this piece and sets places it into a triple allemande.  This 3/4 version of the contredanse is identified a precursor of the waltz, which Allanbrook calls, “both an emblem and a natural end of the tumultuous social changes which took place at the turn of the century.”******

Summary Thoughts:

Unlike a majority of Mozart’s other variation cycles, Ah, vous dirai-je Maman variations, there is no restatement of the original theme at the end of the variation cycle — the transformed melody no longer exists as originally perceived.  Nearly a decade before the storming of the Bastille, Mozart has reflected the pre-revolutionary sentiments of French society through the topical treatment of a simple theme.  In the course of the twelve short variations, Mozart demonstrates that the melody is able to exist in whatever context it demands, reflecting the freedom that eighteenth century thought wished to impart on all members of its society.


* In the search for a definitive date and location of composition the origins of this piece have been changed twice since Köchel’s initial cataloging in 1862.  It is now believed that K 265 was composed in Vienna, 1781-1782.

** Rousseau, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract, ed. G. D. H. Cole <http://www.constitution.org/jjr/socon.htm>.

*** Allanbrook, Wye Jamison.  Rhythmic Gesture in Mozart: Le nozze di Figaro & Don Giovanni (Chicago: University of Chicago Press): 46.

****Ibid., 60.

*****Ibid., 50-51.

******Ibid., 63.

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4 Comments

  • 1. amusicology  |  November 14, 2008 at 5:20 pm

    Originally Posted by Matthew Mugmon at 2007-04-07 11:51

    According to yesterday’s German translation exam — and if I did it at all correctly — both Riemann and some guy Monigmy (not to be confused with Monogamy) wrote about this piece’s theme. They used it as an example of determining the difference between bars as written and bars as heard, and they disagreed about exactly what a musical makes up a musical “unit.” Do we hear it as 2/2 (every four quarter notes in the theme making up a unit) or 2/4 (every two quarter notes)? Of course, these theorists could have used other pieces, but it seems to work well here. On the other hand, maybe the passage I read had something to do with clowns instead. I may never know. And Ryan, your shirt is ready.

  • 2. amusicology  |  November 14, 2008 at 5:21 pm

    Originally Posted by Matthew Mugmon at 2007-04-07 17:30

    I should just add that the “Monigmy” I was talking about is actually “Momigny,” a Belgian composer and theorist from the late-18th/early-19th century. Oops.

  • 3. amusicology  |  November 14, 2008 at 5:21 pm

    Originally Posted by Matthew Mugmon at 2007-04-13 18:58

    At the risk of turning the focus of Ryan’s article completely over to early-20th century theorists, I just wanted to add that in their Schenker textbook, Allen Cadwallader and David Gagne include this piece — just bars 1-8, so the very first section of what we hear in the excerpts — in their section on melody. They don’t call it a Schenkerian 5th-progression (G-C) in the melody yet, but they do point out the structural tones (rather easily identified in the theme excerpt), and they pick out and identify those tones (and the nice neighboring A) in variations 1 and 3. In the “higher level” of what they look at, I is prolonged in the bass all the way through bar 6. A simple example of Schenker’s techniques, but yet another possibly valid application of the Mozart piece.

  • 4. amusicology  |  November 14, 2008 at 5:21 pm

    Originally Posted by Ryan Banagale at 2007-04-26 07:00

    Matt, it is interesting to see that it is the theorists who have paid more analytic attention to this piece. Thanks for posting those observations. However, historians still tend to use it in the way I mentioned at the outset of the original post. I just encountered the following about these variations, published in 2003: “We love it and want to hear it simply because of the familiarity of the tune, and this brings alive the raison d’etre of the form, and because it is well ingrained, the tune (more properly, the entire material, which includes harmonic progression, texture, register and so forth) will bear many (altered) repetitions. This must approximate to the pleasure contemporary listeners derived from other tunes more familiar to them.” (W. Dean Sutcliffe, “The Keyboard Music,” in _Cambridge Companion to Mozart_)


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