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Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star

Ah vous dirais je maman illustration
The words of the first parody of the song, which remains best known to French children even today.





Perhaps the best-known French melody in the English-speaking world, if not the whole world, is a French pastoral song, the melody of which dates to 1740.  The tune became popular, and was first published with suggested lyrics in 1761, linked to a love poem called “La confidence” (“The Confidence”, in English).  The first verse went like this:

Ah!  Vous dirai-je Maman
Ce qui cause mon tourment?
Depuis que j’ai vu Clitandre,
Me regarder d’un air tendre ;
Mon cœur dit à chaque instant,
«Peut-on vivre sans amant?»

In English, it reads like this:

Ah!  Shall I tell you, Mama,
What just drives me crazy?
Since I saw Clitandre
Look at me in that tender way,
My heart said at that instant,
“Can you live without loving?”

In case that doesn’t ring any bells, don’t sweat it.  “La confidence” is not especially well remembered today, and I’m probably one of the few people who have ever tried to translate it into English.  (I’m not bragging about that.  It’s not the most complicated piece, to say the least.)  Oddly, it was not the original but a parody of the original that caught on, and is still a popular children’s song in France today:

Ah!  Vous dirai-je Maman,
Ce qui cause mon tourment?
Papa veut que je raisonne
Comme une grande personne.
Moi, je dis que les bonbons
Valent mieux que la raison.

In English:

Ah!  Shall I tell you, Mama,
What just drives me crazy?
Papa wants that I be reasonable,
Like a grown-up.
Me, I say that candy
Is worth more than reason.

It loses something in the translation, no doubt.  The funny part was that the parody was published as “La confidence naïve”, or “The Naïve Confidence”, turning a heartfelt poem about a young woman trying to sort out her love life into a child complaining to his mother about how his father keeps asking him to grow up already.  The connection to the original lyrics is probably lost on modern French children and even modern French adults, but it must have gotten a good laugh in the 1760s.

This song achieved international attention in 1785, when a 29-year-old Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart published his “Twelve Variations on ‘Ah!  Vous dirai-je Maman!”.  Mozart was probably exposed to the song while staying in Paris a few years earlier.

By 1806, the tune found its way to England, and poet Jane Taylor wrote five verses of a poem called “The Star”, which were no doubt designed to fit this tune:

Twinkle, twinkle, little star,
How I wonder what you are!
Up above the world so high,
Like a diamond in the sky.

Soon after, “The Alphabet Song” and “Baa Baa Black Sheep” were also fitted to the melody.  The German Christmas carol “Morgen Kommt der Weihnachtsmann” uses it as well, as do songs in Spanish, Dutch, Turkish and Hungarian.  “The Alphabet Song” was copyrighted in the United States in 1835, featuring Noah Webster’s newly promoted pronunciation of the final letter, Z, as “zee” instead of “zed”.  Webster’s idea was that the simplified pronunciation was more intuitive, and thus promoted literacy better.  Whether that was true or not, it sure lent itself to the rhyme scheme better than the traditional pronunciation.

The song has been parodied in English a number of times.  Lewis Carroll’s famous “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Bat” debuted in “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” in 1865 and is still one of the best-known parodies, but there have been others.  Here are a few:


“Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Bat” performed by Robert Helpmann in the film “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland”, 1972:


“Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Earth” by Leonard Nimoy: 

A jazzy “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” by Alvin and the Chipmunks:   



Science Groove gets a little more technical with “Twinkle, Twinkle, T2*”: 

“Twelve Variations on ‘Ah!  Vous dirai-je Maman” by Mozart:   


And here’s the original parody of “Ah!  Vous dirai-je Maman!”: 

This is by no means a definitive list of versions and parodies.  The song’s been around for about a quarter of a millennium.  A lot can be done over that much time, so have a look around—I’m sure you’ll find more!

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