The melody came first.
Published in Paris, in 1761. It was titled “Ah! Vous Dirai-Je, Maman.” (“Oh! Shall I Tell You, Mummy”) from a collection called Les Amusements dune Heure et Demy.
Then the words.
From a poem called “The Star,” written by Jane Taylor (1783-1824), an English poet. It was published in 1806 in a collection called Rhymes for the Nursery.
Here’s how “The Star” looked in an American edition of Rhymes for the Nursery, published in 1849.
And finally, the song.
“Ah! Vous Dirai-Je, Maman” and “The Star” were first published together as “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” in The Singing Master: First Class Tune-Book, Second Edition, by William Edward Hickson, in London, 1838.
Here’s how it looked in an edition from 1840.
The melody proved to be rather popular, well before becoming “Twinkle, Twinkle…”
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) wrote “Twelve Variations on ‘Ah! Vous Dirai-Je, Maman'” K.265/300e, in 1781/1782. It was published in Vienna in 1785.
Here’s a contemporary performance by pianist Christoph Eschenbach.
Give a listen! It’s quite the piece.
Also, Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) performed an improvisation on “Ah, Vous Dirai-Je, Maman” in a public concert in Prague in October, 1798. (He also played his Piano Concerto, No. 1 in C major, Op. 15 and two movements from his Piano Sonata No. 2 in A major, Op. 2, No. 2. in that concert.)
The melody has been published with several other texts. Two of the best known are…
“A B C D E F G,” (aka “The ABC Song”) first published in Germany in 1824; then in the United States (where it went under the title “The Schoolmaster”) in 1834 and…
“Bah, Bah, Black Sheep” published in the U.S. in 1879.
Way back in my Folk-singer-on-a-Fall-weekend-at-the-apple-orchard days, I used to do a crowd-pleasing medley of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star,” “The ABC Song” and “Bah, Bah, Black Sheep.”
Then I discovered a songbook with a transcription of “Twinkle, Twinkle…” that had four verses! This was an actual song! I made a copy of the page of lyrics…
…and never wrote down the title of the book it came from!
Those four verses – whoever adapted them from the original – made for a very nice arrangement that these days goes like this.
So. Is this all a rather big to-do for a little kid’s song?
Well, I don’t think that “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” is a little kid’s song.
I think it’s an everybody song.
My original blog motto is: “Good music doesn’t get old.”
Maybe I should change it to: “Good music is ageless.”
Most of the information used in the writing of this post is from: The Book of World-Famous Music: Classical, Popular and Folk, Fifth Edition, Revised and Enlarged (2000) by James J. Fuld.