Dear Straight Dope: I wanted to ask you, who wrote the melody to the alphabet song? I would greatly appreciate an answer if you have one. Karl Stein
SDStaff Jill replies:
Until I looked into this, I always thought Mozart wrote it when he was very young. Unfortunately, like many of the stories I enjoy and pass onto others, it isn’t true. The alphabet was first set to this tune in 1834 (I’ll get to that later), but the tune itself is older and nobody knows who came up with it. Also known as “Baa Baa Black Sheep” and “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” in the United States and “Ist das nicht ein Schnitzelbank?” (sung to other tunes, too) in Germany, the melody was used for an early country song in France. According to The Book of World Famous Music by James J. Fund, it first appeared without words as “Ah! Vous Dirai-Je, Maman” (“Shall I tell you, Mother?”) in Les Amusements d’une Heure et Demy by M. Bouin in Paris in 1761. The earliest known lyrics to be attached to this melody appeared around 1765 as “Le Faux Pas,” as “La Confidence-Naive” in 1774, and then in Paris around 1780 as “Les Amours de Silvandre.”
Here’s the first stanza of the first known written version:
Ah! vous dirai-je, maman, Ce qui cause mon tourment Depuis que j’ai vu Silvandre Me regarder d’un air tendre, Mon coeur dit a tout moment: Peut-on vivre sans amant?
Mozart did compose variations on this theme for piano, probably as practice keyboard exercises for his students. The Compleat Mozart edited by Neal Zaslaw listed the “Twelve variations on Ah vous dirai-je, Maman” as number K265, written probably in Vienna in 1781 or 1782, which would put Mozart at around 26 years old.
Many other famous composers have been inspired by or written variations on this theme. The second movement to Joseph Haydn’s “Surprise” Symphony (#94, written in 1791) is a series of variations of this tune, and Beethoven improvised on it in his second public concert in Prague in 1798. One guy, Patrick Turner, wrote a whole book postulating that Elgar’s “Enigma” has its roots in the “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” tune. Of course this is the topic of hot debate among conductors and musicologists.
Back to the English/American lyrics, again according to James Fund, the song “Mark My Alford” was set to this music in Philadelphia in 1794 and it appeared in a songbook in New York as “The Delights of Wedded Love” in 1795. The alphabet song was first copyrighted under the title “The Schoolmaster” in Boston by C. Bradlee on February 4, 1834. The words to “Baa Baa Black Sheep” were included in Tommy Thumb’s Pretty Song Book with a different melody in 1744 in London. The same lyrics showed up set to this music in the U.S. in A.H. Rosewig’s Illustrated National Nursery Songs and Games in 1879.
The words to “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” were written in London in 1806 by Jane Taylor as “The Star” in her book Rhymes for the Nursery. They were probably first set to this tune in The Singing Master: First Class Tune-Book in 1838.
Clearly there are many, many versions of lyrics and variations on this tune in the western world. Nobody knows who originally wrote the French melody, but whoever it was, Little Richard ain’t got nothin’ on him for lost royalties.
SDStaff Jill, Straight Dope Science Advisory Board
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