Variations on a Nursery Tune (Dohnányi)

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The Variations on a Nursery Tune, Op. 25, is a piece for piano and orchestra by Ernő Dohnányi. It is subtitled For the enjoyment of humorous people and for the annoyance of others.

Written in 1914, it captures the spirit of Romanticism, and manages to delight and enthrall in its sparkling piano writing and lush orchestral textures, and its wit in the treatment of the theme – the French nursery song Ah, vous dirai-je, Maman, otherwise known as Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. Like Dohnányi, Mozart also wrote variations on this nursery tune (K. 265/300e).

Structure and analysis[edit]

The Variations on a Nursery Tune consists of an Introduction and Theme, 11 Variations and a Coda.

  • Introduction. Maestoso
  • Theme. Allegro
  • Variation I. Poco più mosso
  • Variation II. Risoluto
  • Variation III. L'istesso tempo
  • Variation IV. Molto meno mosso (Allegretto moderato)
  • Variation V. Più mosso
  • Variation VI. Ancora più mosso (Allegro)
  • Variation VII. Walzer (Tempo Giusto)
  • Variation VIII. Alla marcia (Allegro moderato)
  • Variation IX. Presto
  • Variation X. Passacaglia (Adagio non troppo)
  • Variation XI. Choral (Maestoso)
  • Finale fugato (Allegro vivace)

The Introduction is Wagnerian in its writing, with faux pathos, brasses blaring and strings thick and dense. The outline of the theme appears indistinctly but unmistakably in the horns, a hint of what is to come. After a long drawn-out conclusion which grows ever quieter while continually building the tension, we have a belch from the orchestra and a pregnant pause, followed by a quiet restatement of the theme on the piano accompanied by pizzicato strings.

What follows is a witty, artful set of variations ranging from the innocent first variation to the romantic third variation, the scurrying sixth variation, the boisterous, overcooked waltz in the seventh variation and the pathos-laden tenth variation which alludes to the Wagnerian opening. Dohnányi treats the piano and orchestra as equals – every instrument is given its chance to shine.

Dohnányi alludes to many different works, or composers' distinctive compositional styles, in the piece. For instance, variation 8 suggests the march from the second movement of Tchaikovsky's "Little Russian" Symphony. Debussy is alluded to, with the ethereal harmonies of the 11th variation. Dohnányi pokes fun at nearly every composer his audience of 1914 would have been familiar with.

Sheet music[edit]