Our music for today is the famous “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” variations for solo piano by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Mozart wrote these variations somewhere around the year 1780 as an exercise for young pianists. The melody that we now know as “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” first appeared in 1761, when Mozart was in his late teens. There are twelve variations on the initial C Major theme. Here is a brief summary of each of them:
Variation 1: The right hand performs the melody while the left hand plays running sixteenth notes.
Variation 2: The two hands switch jobs.
Variation 3: The right hand performs the melody in a triplet figure.
Variation 4: They switch again.
Variation 5: The right hand presents the melody in an off-beat pattern.
Variation 6: The right hand plays a chord-heavy version of the melody while the left hand plays running sixteenth notes.
Variation 7: The melody is heard in running scale patterns in the right hand.
Variation 8: The melody is presented in C minor (parallel minor of C major) and there is imitation between the left and right hands.
Variation 9: The melody is performed staccato (short, sharp notes).
Variation 10: The left hand plays the melody with the right hand embellishing with sixteenth notes (just like variation #2).
Variation 11: The tempo slows and the right hand performs the melody in a singing style.
Variation 12: Both hands compete in a race to the finish.
Glen Gould was one of the most important pianists of the 20th century. Born in Toronto in 1932, Gould is regarded by most as one of the best in the world at interpreting the music of J.S. Bach. He was drawn from a young age to the intricate textures and complex polyphony of Bach’s music and – unlike every one of his contemporaries – had no interest in the standard Romantic repertoire. His vivid imagination enabled him to take his audience with him on fascinating journeys into Bach’s harmonic genius.
Gould was incredibly eccentric. For instance, he would not record unless the recording studio was heated to an almost unbearably high temperature. He would never play – in practice, recording, or a concert – with any other stool than the one his father had made for him in his childhood. He would never go outside, regardless of the season, without a hat and mittens on. Perhaps the most controversial of his eccentricities was his habit of humming or singing under his breath while he played. The habit was so unbreakable that he did it even while performing in concerts or recording sessions (he attributed this to his mother’s teaching him to “sing everything he played”). Many criticized his early recordings because they claimed that they could hear him humming in the background.
To me, the most amazing thing about Glen Gould is that he almost never practiced the piano. He studied his repertoire by reading it and mentally practicing it. In his view, physically playing the piano was one of the last steps in preparing a performance. As a musician who has practiced regularly for the past twenty years (and who is still nowhere near the level of Glen Gould), I find this concept of mental preparation fascinating. I’m sure his photographic memory helped him in this endeavor, but it is nonetheless interesting to think about the possible benefits of adopting his approach in our personal pursuits.