Variations on Ah! Vous dirai-je, Maman for three violins and viola
May 6, 2018: Kerry McDermott, violin; Clara Neubauer, violin; Paul Neubauer, viola; Oliver Neubauer, violin
Charles Dancla was so accomplished on the violin at age nine that Pierre Rode gave him letters of introduction to Pierre Baillot, Luigi Cherubini, and Rodolphe Kreutzer. He studied at the Paris Conservatory with Paul Guérin and Baillot, winning the premier prix in 1833. He also studied composition, playing in Paris theater orchestras to support his family.
A lover of chamber music, Dancla played in his family’s own group, which became a regular feature of Paris seasons. His career did not unfold as he had hoped, however, when he was passed over for Baillot’s position in 1842. He declined the position of assistant conductor at the Opéra-Comique in 1848 and left Paris because of the political unrest. After returning as an official in the postal administration, he finally won a violin post at the Paris Conservatory in 1855. Forced to retire against his will in 1892 at age seventy-five, he continued to perform his own works.
Dancla did not tour, so his reputation relied on his compositions, of which there were many. He composed his Variations on Ah! vous dirai-je , maman! for four violins, op. 161, around 1884—arranged here for three violins and viola. This was the same French folk song on which Mozart had produced his famous set of piano variations in 1781 or ’82.
Dancla’s piece begins with a singing introduction, followed by the theme in alternating forceful and quiet sections. The variations highlight each player in turn starting from the bottom up—1) a florid spun-out line, 2) fast notes using sautillé (bouncing bow) technique, 3) spirited gestures ending with fast filigree, and 4) contrasting sections of lightly arpeggiated chords and soaring vocal leaps. The fifth variation features a darting figure that migrates among all the players, the lovely sixth variation provides songlike lushness, and the seventh merrily contrasts the players in pairs. The eighth is especially striking for its presentation of the theme in harmonics—first over pizzicato triplets, then lyrical counterpoint, and finally hushed tremolo—which serves as a perfect foil for the exuberance of the finale and its dazzling coda.
© Jane Vial Jaffe