Improvised and Composed Variation Technique and Form in Mozart’s Variations for piano in C major




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The theme of Mozart’s Variations for piano in C major on "Ah, vous dirai-je maman" K. 265 (K. 300e) was composed on the tune of a French folksong, which can be traced back to 1761.[1] Today the tune is familiar in English-spoken countries as “Twinkle, twinkle little star.” Even in China, this endearing, simple, nursery rhyme has become a popular children’s song. Thus Mozart’s variations on this folk song are one of Chinese people’s favorite sets at piano concerts, where it is called the “Twinkle, twinkle little star” piano sonata. The French title, “Ah, vous dirai-je maman”, has led most scholars to believe that the variations were written in Paris in 1778, but they have recently been redated to Mozart’s early Vienna years around 1781-82.[2] This is a mature period in Mozart’s compositional life. In 1781, Mozart composed his famous opera Idomeneo for the Bavarian court. This work marked one of the best examples of 18th-century opera seria. It was in 1781 that he resigned from the archbishop's service and moved to Vienna, where in 1782 he married Constanze Weber, the sister of Aloysia. The marriage brought him a great pleasure; and in 1782 Mozart entered his greatest popular acceptance by the public in Vienna.


Variations in C major on “Ah, vous dirai-je maman” K. 265 (K. 300e) is one of Mozart’s most gleeful works for piano. Only in the eighth variation in the minor key does the mood darken slightly; otherwise the whole work sounds almost like a “preliminary sketch for the duet of the two men in armor in ‘The Magic Flute’[3].


In general, this set is an ornamental type variation. It dissolves the melody of the theme into notes of shorter value, playfully embroidering the melody with runs, trills and arpeggios: utilizing transposition into various registers of the keyboard. This variation form is not original. The set uses the blueprint Mozart employs for most of his sets of variations: one variation presents a figuration in the right hand; the next variation places a similar figuration in the left hand, and so on through several different manipulations of the theme. After a variation in minor mode somewhere along the way, and eventually also a slow, ornamental variation, Mozart finally concludes with a variation that expands to round off the piece as a whole.


Variation form is founded on repetition: a discrete thematic entity—a complex of melody, harmony, phrase structure, rhythm, and the character resulting from these – may be repeated several times, with various modifications. However, most composers will have a detailed map before writing. Mozart’s variations for piano in C major on "Ah, vous dirai-je maman" K. 265 is not as simple as it looks. When we look into the music, in fact Mozart displays his supreme mastery of techniques of ornamenting a simple, delightful melody. A detailed analysis of the whole work shows a clear plan of how organically Mozart linked the twelve variations for the set. So Mozart’s work can be understood as a stereotyped variation that indicates special unifying characteristics. In the following discussion of this paper, I will provide a complete descriptive survey of this stereotype and then to point out the special qualities that Mozart uses in his “unique capacity of combining heterogeneous elements in the smallest space”[4] to compose this piano sonata.




In discussing variations, Hugo Leichtentritt comments that a “significant, simple and clear harmonization of the theme is of the greatest value”.[5] Looking at the theme of "Ah, vous dirai-je maman" K. 265, it is very fair to say Mozart provides a perfect example of Leichtentritt’s viewpoint. Example 1 presents the first phrase of the theme.

Ex. 1:  Mozart, Variations on “Ah, vous dirai-je, Maman,” K.265, Theme mm. 1—8








The melody of the theme copies the familiar folk tune, adding only a little decoration with a dotted eighth and sixteenth note in measure 7. Why does Mozart keep tracking the original tune, and make so little change? Is it because he doesn’t want the audience to feel bored by the simple melody? Or is it because Mozart favors ornamentation? Let’s just keep this question in mind, since currently there are not enough examples to reveal the answer. Just as the upper voice is simple, Mozart repetitively uses a note-against-note counterpoint approach that creates a “clear harmonization of the theme”. The overall structure of the first part of the phrase is shown by a graphic representation in Example 1-a below.


Ex. 1-a: A graphic representation of Theme



“N”: indicates a neighbor note

”: dotted tie indicates a retained or prolonged note.

”: the solid slur or beam indicates tonal motion from one point to another.


The graphic representation shows that the upper voice begins with a large leap C—G, building musical tension; then is followed by a descending stepwise motion G-F-E-D-C that subsequently dissipates the tension and then finally ends with a perfect cadence—II6-V-I, as underlined in example 1-a. In the bass line, the music opens with a tonic chord I, then the downbeats of m.2—m.6 form a succession of parallel tenths between the upper and lower voices (Example 1-a). With a counterpoint character, the melody begins with a leap from the root to the fifth of the tonic chord, followed by a little decoration of the neighbor note A, then passes through F to E, which is the third part of the tonic chord, and finally concludes with D and C, notes from the perfect cadential pattern II6-V-I.


The second phrase (m.9—m.16) uses the same composing technique as the first part in that it consists of two repetitions of the descending stepwise motion found in the first phrase. (EXAMPLE 2) But the second phrase ends at a half cadence I-I6-V (Example 2), indicating that the phrase is not finished. And the last phrase is exactly the same as the first phrase, and it ends in a perfect cadence.


Ex. 2:  Mozart, Variations on “Ah, vous dirai-je, Maman,” K.265, Theme mm. 9—16


                                                                                                                                                                            I          I6  V

In general, the theme is composed of a balanced round binary form. Indeed, Mozart presents the following twelve variations all in this form, which shows that besides the organic connections between the twelve variations, each variation keeps its own unity, ending with a perfect cadence and leading to the next variation at the same time.


Variation I


In the first variation, Mozart embellishes the melody line with the sixteenth-note turn (see Example 1). Moreover, in measure 28, 29 and 30, Mozart builds a large leap in sixths on the stepwise diatonic pattern. The lower line of these three measures is built up by the accented neighbor chromatic notes (shown with the square Example 1). After a simple, unadorned theme, Mozart writes a complex melody that immediately builds up a contrast to the plain theme. In addition, the legato allows the performer to display not only his/her technical skills, but also the capabilities and idiomatic aspects of the piano. Variation I also reminds us that Mozart is a commercial and popular composer, that he knows well the audience’s taste. In Mozart’s time, variations were often composed as performance practice for virtuosic display on a particular instrument. Keeping the same harmonic line from the theme, Mozart uses skill in the first variation to connect with the original melody. With the same harmonic support, the embellished melody is clearly composed from the same pattern that Mozart uses in the theme (shown in Example 3 with the circled notes).

Ex. 3: Mozart, Variations on “Ah, vous dirai-je, Maman,” K.265, Var.I mm. 25—32.


Variation II 

In variation II, Mozart moves the sixteenth-note turn embellishment idea from the right hand to the left hand. Due to the elaborations in the left hand, Mozart chordally enriches the texture in the right hand. The thicker, fuller texture also helps introduce the suspension on diatonic notes G, F and E in measure 50, 51 and 52 relatively (circled in Example 4). Different from theme and Variation I, Variation II avoids using too much counterpoint technique, but expands the harmonic consonance.


Ex. 4:  Mozart, Variations on “Ah, vous dirai-je, Maman,” K.265, Var.II mm. 49—54.



Variation III


In the third variation, Mozart shows more capabilities and idiomatic aspects of the piano. He embeds the melody in a rapid, wide-ranging arpeggiation in triplets in the right hand. At the same time, the arpeggiation that built from the C major triad, the tonic harmony connects the third variation with the former two. In mm.77—80, Mozart uses the chordal notes from Variation II mm.53—56, inverts the chords to a higher register that open up more space and then spans the notes in the linear melody surface. Here Mozart shows a technique of how to build up a melody, which a suspension figure of #2 is embedded in the figuration (shown in Example 5).


Ex. 5:  Mozart, Variations on “Ah, vous dirai-je, Maman,” K.265, Var.II mm. 53—54.    















Variation IV


Variation IV seems to be a combination of the right hand of Variation II, and the triplets of variation III are shifted to the left hand. This makes Variation IV looks like a summary of what has been played before. In addition, the bass line of the final bar of variation III reveals a triplet arpeggio of the tonic harmony. Then this triplet is picked up by the bass line of variation IV in an ascending shape. It is clear that Mozart carries on the triplet note idea from Variation III as the bass line of Variation IV. In addition, Mozart uses similar skill of inverting the triplet from the upper part to form the melody line in the bass part in this section, as pointed out in Example 6 below.

Ex. 6:  Mozart, Variations on “Ah, vous dirai-je, Maman,” K.265, last measure of Var.III.


Variation V


After the summary effected Variation IV, we may wonder what Mozart will introduce in Variation V. Variation V is a very playful piece found in delicate eight-quarter- note rhythm patterns. The right hand and the left hand alternately play an eight-quarter-note pattern. In the second part of this variation (mm.129-136), Mozart brings in a new material, which changes the diatonic descending motion into a descending chromatic motion. Then in the ending phrase, Mozart develops the new semi-tone character but varies it with a sixteenth note pattern. Variation V is a fine piece that frees the tension built by the thickly textured Variation IV and introduces the new descending chromatic motive which is frequently used in the following variations.


Ex. 7:  Mozart, Variations on “Ah, vous dirai-je, Maman,” K.265, Var.V, mm.121-144.



Variation VI


Contrasted with Variation V, Variation VI adds layers of both texture and harmony. The beginning in the left hand carries on the ascending chromatic pattern from the last bar of Variation V. After several repeating descending duple notes, Mozart uses a small turn leading to another tonic note, decorated by a chromatic pattern as well. After a bridge in mm.153-154, Mozart retains the same technique in mm.155-160, but changes the turn sixteenth notes to the right hand and keeps the folk tune in the left hand (see example 8). This creates a contrast with Variation V and avoids providing too much melody. In addition, major chords bring a peaceful feeling. As in the former variations, the phrase steps down to the tonic chord and ends with a perfect cadence.


Ex: 8 Mozart, Variations on “Ah, vous dirai-je, Maman,” K.265, Var. VI mm.145-178.














Ex. 9:  Mozart, Variations on “Ah, vous dirai-je, Maman,” K.265, Var.VI mm. 153—160.
















Variation VII


After a calmness of Variation V and Variation VI, Variation VII is the first apex of this work. With one ascending scales crossing two octaves, and then leaping within the high register, in groups of three-sixteenth notes in mm.173-175, the music reaches the high note E in measure 176, while the bass line follows the simple harmonic pattern (see example 10). Variation VII is another development of Variation V and Variation VI.


Ex. 10:  Mozart, Variations on “Ah, vous dirai-je, Maman,” K.265, Var.VII mm. 169—192.



Variation VIII 


The change of mode from major to minor is the most obvious feature that Mozart uses in this section. It is interesting to hear that Mozart still keeps the same theme notes (almost the same as the right hand line in Var. IV), but the feeling is totally different than in the major key. This music is very expressive, soft and nostalgic. The left hand imitates the melody in a lower pitch, creating an echo to the upper voice, which increases the dramatic feeling. The second phrase keeps the chromatic descending pattern which is introduced in Variation V. And the final phrase is a recapitulation of the first phrase.


Ex. 11:  Mozart, Variations on “Ah, vous dirai-je, Maman,” K.265, Var.VIII mm. 193—200












Variation IX


After the minor mode, Mozart quickly cheers up and regresses to the major mood. For Mozart, changing the mode one time is enough, for he does the same thing in most of his other Variations, such as in 12 Variations KV 189a (179), 12 Variations KV 299a (354), 12 Variations KV 300f (353), and 9 Variations KV 315d (264) and so on. Keeping the left hand imitating the right hand, introduced in Variation VIII, Variation IX is a transition from Variation VIII to Variation X and is a prefiguration of more to come.


Variation X


With the expectation set up in Variation IX, Mozart starts Variation X with great activity. The texture here uses three-sixteenth notes, as in Variation VII. This section also requires virtuoso skill to master the piece.


Variation XI


When the audience is in suspense and expects a final bluster, Mozart brings out another calmness section here. Instead of the expected Allegro section, Variation XI is marked with “Adagio”. This is not a surprise, since Mozart favors in cooling down before the final bluster, such as in 12 Variations KV 189a (354) and 12 Variations KV 300f (353). A very familiar melody quietly smoothes in, shaped by a dotted- eighth-sixteenth pattern (shown in EXAMPLE 12). Although this dotted-eighth-sixteenth pattern we have seen many times in the prior variations until now, when we hearing the music, we recognize that this is a Mozart signature. Then Mozart elaborates the melody with flowery trills, turns and embellishments. The music line begins with a dotted eighth-sixteenth note motive, which is borrowed from the theme that I mentioned in the analysis of theme part. Then the composer elaborates the rhythm space by three bars’ march-like syncopations. The following complex ornamentations of the melody make variation XI look more like a brilliant cadenza of the theme than another variation. The bass line imitates the upper line and changes to the harmony chords. It is calm before the storm and it suddenly interrupts the well-prepared expectation that was built by variation X. Therefore Variation XI is composed with much feeling, and very flexible in dynamics.


Ex. 12:  Mozart, Variations on “Ah, vous dirai-je, Maman,” K.265, the beginning 4 bars of Var.XI.











Variation XII


Finally comes a most impassioned “Allegro” ending. Variation XII is a high-spirited last dance. It is a section with virtuosity, but never producing a powerful sound. The first big change in Variation XII is that the composer changes the tempo from 2/4 to 3/4. Then in mm.297-304, the composer brings in all the techniques he used in the earlier variations: the delightfully decorated dotted eighth-sixteenth notes, trills, arpeggios, and turns. These ornaments show up in the left hand first, then move to the right hand and finally appear in both hands. Although Variation XII is the last variation of the whole set, Mozart does not simply write a recapitulation of the theme. Instead, he carries the chromatic idea, which he explored in Variation V and finishes the final variation on this idea as well, as pointed out in Example 13. Mozart reaches the end of the work with another his signature, a very strong I-V-I ending feeling (shown in EXAPLE 14). He follows the trend mentioned at the article that of the beginning of this article that K.265 uses the blueprint Mozart employs for most of his sets of variations.


Ex. 13:  Mozart, Variations on “Ah, vous dirai-je, Maman,” K.265, Var.XII, mm.289-296.

Ex. 14: Mozart, Variations on “Ah, vous dirai-je, Maman,” K.265, Var.XII mm.320-323.




The techniques used to vary the repetitions reflect the technique that while keeping the tempo and harmony pure and simple, Mozart varies the melody in many ways: through increasing or decreasing the strength of the folk tune in the execution of the repeated section; through varying the figures with which the principle notes are decorated and through the combination of several ornamentation techniques. Furthermore the work reveals a clearly developed plan of the twelve variations, as shown in the figure 1 below:


Fig. 1:  Plan of the Twelve variations.


Thus the analysis of Mozart’s Variations on “Ah, vous dirai-je, Maman,” K.265 reveals Mozart’s remarkable talents to master this type of composition. However, when reading the historical literary documents for Mozart’s Variations, I realized that most of the information about variation forms he improvised in public comes his letters, in which he writes about. The reports focus only on the fact of variations being improvised, not on their content and technique. For instance, in his letter to his father about a concert in Vienna in June 1781, he wrote: “When the concert was over I went on playing variations (for which the Archbishop gave me the theme) for a whole hour and with such general applause that if the Archbishop had any vestige of humanity, he must have felt delighted.”[6] Therefore, it is reasonable to assume that the variation form in Mozart’s period is mostly composed for a concert performance purpose. It is a way to illustrate the performer is or composer’s technical talent rather than to any musical meanings.


To conclude, Mozart’s approach to writing variations reflected the different facets of his career: the performing pianist who improvised a published independent set, and the serious composer as performing pianist including variations in piano concertos.








Anderson, Emily. The Letters of Mozart and his Family. New York and London:     W.W.Norton, 3rd ed., 1985.

Cadwallader, Allen and Gagne, David. Analysis of Tonal Music: A Schenkerian Approach. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Clendinning, Jane Piper and West Marvin, Elizabeth. Theory and Analysis. New York and London: W.W.Norton, 2004.

Leichtentritt, Hugo. Muscial Form. Cambridge and Messachusetts: Harvard University Press, 7th printing, 1973.

Schott, Howard. Playing the Harpshichord. London: Faber & Faber, 1990.

Sisman, Elaine R. Haydn and the Classical Variation. Cambridge, Massachusetts, and London, England: Harvard University Press, 1993. 


[1]Elaine R. Sisman, Haydn and the Classical Variation (Cambridge, Massachusetts, and London, England: Harvard University Press, 1993): 196.

[2]Howard Schott, Playing the Harpshichord (London: Faber & Faber, 1990): 13.

[3] Howard Schott, Playing the Harpshichord (London: Faber & Faber, 1990): 13. (Duet Papageno! Papagena! is sung by the two Men in Armor during the Act II finale, when Pamina and Tamino pass to undergo the final test. As Tamino contemplates his final initiation rite, the men harmonize a cantus-firmus like melody over a contrapuntal accompaniment.)


[4] Arnold Schoeberg, “Bach” (1950), reprinted in Style and Idea, ed. Leon Stein (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of. California Press, 1975): 395.

[5] Hugo Leichtentritt, Musical Form, 7th printing (United States: Harvard University Press, 1973): 96.

[6] Mozart Wolfgang Amadeus, The Letters of Mozart and his Family, Translated and edited by Emily Anderson. 3rd ed. (New York and London: W.W. Norton, 1988): 742.