A little old-school new school for the new-school old school
Mozart’s Ah, vous dirai-je Maman variations (K 265) stand as a quintessential example of the genre. [Access the score via the 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.] However, little else has been gained from this piece since its composition in 1776, 1778, or perhaps at some point during 1781-1782.*
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” –
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.”******
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 <>.
*** Allanbrook, Wye Jamison. Rhythmic Gesture in Mozart: Le nozze di Figaro & Don Giovanni (Chicago: University of Chicago Press): 46.