Bagpipe Society Logo
Promoting the Bagpipe Revival since 1986

The Bagpipe Society

I found a little nut tree lurking in the bag

Many years ago my late friend Columba and I noticed the similarity of Playford’s An Italian Rant1 and the River Vltava theme in Smetana’s Ma Vlast2 Intrigued, we kept ears open for additional concordances and soon found a few more, including the Flemish popular song Ik zag Cecilia komen eenen watergank, which occurs in several editions we bought in Bruges that published assorted variants. After Columba died I continued the search, partly on her behalf, stringing the best of our discoveries into a suite I called Out of Italy to perform on renaissance bagpipes as a painless history-of-music lesson for audiences.

A particular revelation occurred when I was preparing the Vltava section, like Smetana elevating the mood of the piece by digressing from minor into major. Until then I had been unaware that the nursery rhyme I had a little nut tree was ’lurking in the bag’, but I found myself automatically playing it. At the time I counted it as a variant of the minor tune group, not noticing until much later that maybe it belonged to another, related group of North European (well, French and British) tunes.

One morning in November 2010 my brain connected Little nut tree to the one of simplest of all tunes, known in eighteenth-century France as Ah vous dirai-je, Maman or La Confidence, later in England given the verses of Twinkle, twinkle, little star. All of those tunes, including Baa, baa, black sheep and Wee Willie Winkie, were part of my earliest folklore, learnt with other nursery rhymes from my parents and Uncle Mac3.

By mid-morning the nut tree connection – previously perched on rather rudimentary judgements – had enabled me to recognise two distinct classes of tune based on the same sequence of notes, with the limited range of a major sixth. The underlying pattern is the same: a tonic note followed by its dominant, then up a tone before descending in increments back to the tonic. In some cases, after a repeated simple descending phrase the first is repeated. Baa, baa, black sheep, I had a little nut tree and Wee Willie Winkie, which are embellished variants within Group A, lack the da capo found in the simpler versions.

Group A tunes are all in the major (or Ionian mode) and are sparsely embellished, whilst most in Group B are minor (or Aeolian mode), often begin with an anacrusis (introductory upbeat) and are more elaborately embellished with passing notes and excursions beyond the basic pattern.

Another striking contrast between the two groups is that the simple Group A tunes all belong to children’s songs whilst the relatively complex minor tunes in Group B have adult texts (except Kočka leze dírou, which is in group B format but, perhaps significantly since it is a children’s song, is sung in the major).


When the two tune groups are sorted (below) it becomes clear that they have strikingly different histories. One might expect simpler tunes to be ancestors of more complex ones, but the reverse seems to be the case here.


[18th C; major/Ionian; Anglo-French; north European]

  1. Ah vous dirai-je, Maman (Words: Les Amusements d’une Heure et Demy, Paris, 1761; Music: ms. Recueil de Chansons, c. 1765)
  2. Baa, baa, black sheep (Words: Tommy Thumb’s Pretty Song Book, c. 1744)
  3. I had a little nut tree (Words: Newest Christmas Box, London, 1797)
  4. Twinkle, twinkle, little star (Words: Rhymes for the Nursery, London, 1806)
  5. The Alphabet Song or The A.B.C., a German air with variations for the flute with an easy accompaniment for the piano forte (Words & tune: Charles Bradlee of Boston MA, 1835)
  6. Wee Willie Winkie (Words: William Miller in Whistle-binkie: Stories for the Fireside, Glasgow, 1841)

Ah vous dirai-je, Maman reused

    1. Variations on “Ah, vous dirai-je maman” (Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, 1781 / 2)
    1. Variations on a Nursery Tune (Ernö Dohnányi, 1914)
    1. in Carnival of the Animals (Camille Saint-Saëns, 1886)
    1. There are numerous less familiar others


[16th C; minor/Aeolian; Italian; pan-European] Minor.

    1. Fuggi, fuggi, fuggi da questo cielo (Giuseppe Cenci or Giuseppino del Biado, 1600) 2. La Mantovana (Gasparo Zanetti, in Il Scolaro, 1645)4
    1. Sonata Sopra Fuggi dolente core (Biagio Marini, op. 22: Diversi generi di sonate, da chiesa, e da camera, 1655)5
    1. Now the spring is come (John Gamble’s Commonplace Book, 1659)6
    1. An Italian Rant (pub. John Playford, 1657)7
    1. Ik zag Cecilia komen eenen watergank (Flemish: Beyaert tune, Gent, 1661)
    1. Cucuruz cu frunza’n sus (Romanian folk song)
    1. Ack Värmeland du sköna (Swedish folk song, 1822)
    1. Vltava from Ma Vlast (Bedrich Smetana, 1874-5)
    1. Hatikvah (Words: Israeli National Anthem, Naphtali Herz Imber (Galician), 1878; Tune: Cucuruz cu frunza’n sus, arr. Samuel Cohen (Romanian), 1897)
    1. Kateryna Kucherjava arr. Roman Turovsky-Savchuk (possibly 18th C origin)

Major variants

    1. I had a little nut tree (Words: Newest Christmas Box, London, 1797)
    1. Vltava from Ma Vlast (Bedrich Smetana, 1874-5)
    1. Kočka leze dírou (Czech children’s song)

The origins of Group B tunes are well defined; for some of them even the collector or composer’s name is known. They surely have their origins in sixteenth-century Italy, but examples from before 1600, if they exist, have yet to be in England before 1600he reign of Elizabeth I. In his notes accompanying Now the Spring is Come, Chappell8 suggests that its tune might have been extant earlier, during the reign of Elizabeth I (1558-1603):

“This copy of the ballad, having been printed by the assigns of Thomas Symcocke, is of the reign of James I. Christmas’ s Lamentation [see note 3] must also be a ballad of the reign of Elizabeth or James I, although the Roxburghe copy is not of so early a date. Yellow starch is mentioned in the sixth stanza, and it came into fashion in the latter part of the reign of Elizabeth, and continued until November, 1615, the date of the execution of the celebrated beauty, Mrs. Turner, for participation in the poisoning of Sir Thomas Overbury. When the Lord Chief Justice Coke sentenced her to death, he ordered that, “as she was the person who had brought yellow starched ruffs into vogue, she should be hanged in that dress, that the same might end in shame and detestation.” “Even the hangman who executed this unfortunate woman was decorated with yellow ruffs on the occasion.” (Rimbault’s Life of Overbury.)”

The sixteenth- or seventeenth-century Italian tune proved popular and spread northwards across Europe during the seventeenth century, finding particular favour in the Low Countries where Ik zag Cecilia komen is still widely sung. As it travelled, it evolved to produce a range of versions. Concurrently, it seems to have travelled eastward from Italy, for the Romanian Cucuruz cu frunza’n sus (Maize with standing leaf) resembles one of the earliest versions Fuggi, fuggi, fuggi , and relatively recent tradition (or is it real history?) has it that the Israeli National Anthem Hatikva was given the Romanian tune by one Samuel Cohen, an immigrant from Bessarabia, Romania.

Smetana’s Vltava melody’s true history has become obscured by its association with a popular Czech children’s song, Kočka leze dírou (The Cat Crawls Through the Hole). After exploring the symphonic possibilities of the Group A minor format for eight minutes Smetana switches to the related major key, pretty well exactly quoting Kočka leze dírou. The question is: did the song take its tune from Smetana or was Smetana making humorous reference to a popular tune? In either case, the main Vltava theme is now widely considered to be a native old Czech tune, so overwhelmingly that Czech Airlines play it in their planes after they land9.

Perhaps Smetana did extract Kočka leze dírou from his native folk repertoire, quoting it as a brief embedded scherzo. It is difficult to tell these days because of a fog of misapprehension promulgated by amateur folklorists who too simplistically find its origins in Czech culture (a weakness of the Internet, which if used with discrimination can be an excellent information source).

I have found the origins of Kateryna Kucherjava difficult to pin down. There are many mentions on the Internet, almost all copied from the Wikipedia La Mantovana page. Such unreferenced serial plagiarism is thoroughly unhelpful. Kateryna Kucherjava obviously is derived from Fuggi, fuggi, fuggi and is alleged to belong to the Ukrainian folk repertoire with obscure implications (Internet again) of its use in puppetry. Its Ukrainian roots are perhaps in the eighteenth century, but this fuzzy information is further obscured by the collections of twenty-first-century painter-lutenist Roman

Turovsky-Savchuk (‘Ioannes Leopolita’10) who seems to have arranged much Ukrainian music. The website11 where I found this tune has many potentially informative hyperlinked sections missing and does not make clear the histories of tunes provided as lute tablature and performed (MP3 or video).

In contrast and counter-intuitively, the origins of all the later Group A tunes are difficult (perhaps impossible) to determine. They seem simply to have appeared once their song lyrics had been published, soon to become familiarly associated with them. This situation begs the question: was there an ancestral tune (the earliest-known descendant of which would be Ah, vous dirai-je maman, c. 1765) extant before the eighteenth century children’s songs we have or were their tunes deliberately composed for them?

The basic verse rhythm ----|--x ----|--x is simple, the youngest of toddlers (very good for clapping). The words demand easy music, and the Ah vous dirai – Twinkle, twinkle note pattern is ideal (perfect!). Perhaps the anonymous composer of Ah vous dirai-je, Maman was inspired to write a tune of such fitness for purpose that it was automatically absorbed into Anglo-French culture. Perhaps s/he was like Douanier Rousseau or L.S. Lowry, who created significant art out of simple intentions.

Alternatively, it is tempting to speculate that this extremely simple tune pattern is so basic as perhaps to be instinctive, rather than devised, and therefore ancient: deeply embedded in the European psyche. It might have been composed, but might it equally well have been a musical pattern that any human could instinctively hum, sing or play on a rudimentary instrument? Here are its bare bones:


Can it be considered to be a musical meme? The British scientist Richard Dawkins introduced the word “meme” in The Selfish Gene (1976) in order to explain the spread of ideas and cultural phenomena according to Darwinian evolutionary principles. Examples of memes given in the book included melodies, catch-phrases, beliefs (notably religious beliefs), clothing fashion, and the technology of building arches. Even if originally composed, the tunes discussed here constitute a memetic array, evolving during musician to musician transfer over the prolonged period c. 1600 – present. Such a simple tune could have been played long ago on a six-string lyre, or a cane/bone flute/ reed pipe with five or more finger holes (tuned to an appropriate scale), such as have been continuously in existence for thousands of years, even, as recently discovered, in the hands of Neanderthal people12. Such considerations constitute extravagant speculation rather than plausible conclusions.


There would seem to be little doubt that all of these tunes are based on the same Ah vous dirai – Twinkle, twinkle pattern. There are two related families of tunes, one simple in the major, the other more elaborate in the minor. That they may have evolved from a single common ancestor is impossible to assert due to the apparent descendants pre- dating the apparent ancestors. What we need to look for is a major-key, seventeenth- century tune that opens with an anacrusis and/or an early version of the Ah vous dirai – Twinkle, twinkle tune, independent of the eighteenth/nineteenth-century nursery repertoire.

The probably sixteenth-century group B Fuggi, fuggi, fuggi tunes migrated after 1600, according to a northward radiating pattern. Hatikva is the odd tune out, its arrival in Israel being the result of its being taken there directly from Romania, rather than by gradual evolutionary transfer.

There are probably more examples waiting to be found that could refine these conclusions. Indeed it is possible that continued searching will turn up representatives of one, other or both groups in the folklore of several more European countries. Perhaps a north-south, major-minor distribution will become more apparent. This might be already happening. I discovered the delightful (major) Cucuruz cu frunza’n sus whilst in the process of compiling this article, adding to my ‘definitive’ collection a variant from a completely new territory and culture. Perhaps more can be learnt by exploring the Scandinavian repertoire, for one author has written: “… the surging string melody which Smetana is said to have derived from a Swedish folk-song [Presumably Ack Värmeland du sköna] but which now sounds quintessentially Czech.”13

Some alleged concordances require further research and incorporation/rejection in our Fuggi, fuggi, fuggi tune family. Wikipedia suggests Pod Krakowem (Poland), but what I can find of it provides no reason to think it is related to Fuggi, fuggi, fuggi . A friend who took an interest in this project has hazarded, not entirely implausibly, that Jonny Todd and Michael Row the Boat Ashore, might have their origins in these tunes. No comment.

I remain undecided as to whether I had a little nut tree is major version derived from Fuggi, fuggi, fuggi tune or an interestingly embellished form of Ah vous dirai-je, Maman.

Youtube videos and MP3

Ah vous dirai-je, Maman

Twinkle, twinkle, little star in different Indian / Desi styles (preferable to syrupy American videos)

Fuggi, fuggi, fuggi da questo cielo Marco Beasley

La Mantovana Arto Wikla (renaissance guitar)

An Italian Rant Valéry Sauvage (renaissance guitar)

Kateryna Kucherjava Rob MacKillop (lute)

Ik zag Cecilia komen eenen watergank Aafje Heynis

Vltava City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra

Kočka leze dírou

Cucuruz cu frunza’n sus Bogdan Filimon (band excellent, singer’s tuning annoying)

Cucuruz cu frunza’n sus Sava Negrean Brudascu

Hatikva Shiri Maimon

Hatikva recorded at Bergen-Belsen Concentration Camp, April 20th 1945

Ack Värmeland du sköna Zarah Leander (baritone?)

Ack Värmeland du sköna Dana Dragomir (panpipes)

Variations on “Ah, vous dirai-je maman” W.A. Mozart (Clara Haskil)

Variations on a Nursery Tune Ernö Dohnányi (Cyril Smith, piano with Liverpool

Philarmonic Orchestra conducted by Dr. Malcolm Sargent, 1944)

Fossiles Camile Saint-Saens (narrator Roger Moore)


Giovan Battista Ferrini - Ballo di Mantova Primo, Secondo, Terzo. In: Opere per Clavicembalo. (Roberto Loreggian, harpsichord)

Gaetano Greco - Partite sopra il ballo di Mantova (Enrico Baiano, harpsichord)

Ballo di Mantova (modern version, Vagamondo)

My Mistress is Prettie, by monsieur Mouton (ms. Balcarres, p. 85. Arto Wikla, lute)


  1. An excellent tune for drone instruments, played on hurdy-gurdy by Tim Bayley of The York Waits on their CD Playford Plus (Brewhouse Music BHCD0701).
  3. Derek McCulloch, 1897-1967, whose 78 rpm gramophone records and ‘wireless’ programme Children’s Favourites influenced me profoundly as a child. http://
  4. “Instrumental settings of ‘Fuggi, fuggi, fuggi’ appear in more than thirty-four Continental sources (often called “Ballo di Mantua”) and at least ten English sources (in which the title is oftern ‘An Italian Rant’), dating from the seventeenth and early part of the eighteenth centuries.” In: Gordon J. Callon, ed. (2000). Songs with theorbo (ca.1650- 1663) p. 84.
  6. Also in the Roxburghe Collection, i. 48, entitled “Christmas’ Lamentation for the losse of his acquaintance; showing how he is forst to leave the Country, and come to London. To the tune of Now the Spring is Come.”
  7. John Playford (1657). The Dancing Master. London.
  8. Chappell, William (1861). Popular Music of Olden Time. Chappell, London.
  13. Richard G. Bratby 2001