"Variations on a Nursery Tune"

The Composer's Datebook from American Public Media
Friday, February 17, 2017

On today's date in 1914, a new work by the Hungarian composer, piano, and conductor Ernst von Dohnányi received its premiere performance in Berlin. It was for piano and orchestra, and entitled "Variations on a Nursery Tune." For its premiere, Dohnányi himself was the piano soloist, with the foremost conductor of his day, Artur Nikisch, leading the Berlin Philharmonic.

Now, Dohnányi provided a subtitle to his new work, or a kind of dedication if you like. He wrote: "For the enjoyment of people with a sense of humor—and for the annoyance of others." You see, the tune Dohnányi had chosen as the theme for his variations was the French nursery song "Ah, vous dirai-je, Maman," known on this side of the Atlantic as "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star." In Dohnányi's hands, the childish theme sparkles in witty piano solos set against lush, late-Romantic orchestral textures.

Dohnányi was born in 1877 in what is now known as Bratislava, the modern-day capital of Slovakia, but back then a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. He died in 1960 in New York City, but was buried in Tallahassee, Florida, since he had been living and teaching there for the last decade of his life.

Dohnányi wrote a respectable body of operas, orchestral works, chamber music, and solo piano works, but his "Variations on a Nursery Tune remains his best-known and best-loved work.