The Ballad of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star”

Verse 1

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. 

Verse 2

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.

Verse 3

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.


Verse 4

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.)

Verse 5

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.

Verse 6

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!

Oh, well.

Those four verses – whoever adapted them from the original – made for a very nice arrangement that these days goes like this.

Verse 7

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.”

The End

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.


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3 Responses to The Ballad of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star”

  1. badfinger20 says:

    Great history of it. It takes me back to being a kid…beautiful melody that we take for granted…I love your version of it.

    • Thanks! I didn’t know the history until just recently. Fascinating stuff, I think, and I’m still amazed that I was able to find those scans of the old manuscripts online.

  2. Just a Fantastic historical synopsis of some of the history of this tune, love your guitar playing and singing. Please check out my new choral setting, I would like to link to this site and hear your thoughts,
    David Woodard,

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