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The Origin of “Chopsticks”
By Patrick Downing
2/24/2011 8:46:00 AM  

To many, it was the first song that they ever learned to play on the piano. To some, it is the most annoying tune imaginable (after “Heart and Soul”, which I believe is more annoying...) that is constantly played (and pounded) on pianos in schools and churches everywhere. You may remember Tom Hanks and Robert Loggia playing it with their feet on the “Big Piano” at FAO Schwarz in the 1988 film, Big. One thing is certain; the infamous tune “Chopsticks” has been played by pianists at all levels all over the world! However, who wrote this extremely familiar melody, and when?

The original name of “Chopsticks” is “The Celebrated Chop Waltz”, and it was written in 1877 by Euphemia Allen, who published the tune under the pseudonym, Arthur de Lulli. Allen, who was the sister of a music publisher, supposedly was only sixteen years old when she composed the piece! Along with the main theme, Allen included arrangements for piano solo and duet. Many people believe the piece was inspired by actual chopsticks (the Chinese eating utensils), which led to playing the piece with just the forefingers only. However, on page 3 of the piece, Allen left these instructions: "This part (primo part of the duet) must be played with both hands turned sideways, the little fingers lowest, so that the movements of the hands imitate the chopping from which this waltz gets its name." Therefore, and contrary to popular belief, the piece was not named after the eating utensils!

Soon after the piece was published, a group of composers collaboratively wrote a collection of four-hand piano variations on Allen’s theme titled Paraphrases in 1878-1879. The composers were Alexander Borodin, César Cui, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, Anatoly Lyadov, and Nikolai Shcherbachov. In 1880, the collection was expanded and included variations by Franz Liszt.

Since it was written, the “Chopsticks” theme has been the basis of numerous arrangements and variations all over the globe. British pianist Billy Mayerl performed and recorded a complicated arrangement of the theme in 1927 subtitled “a syncopated impression”. In the highly praised 1946 film, The Best Years of Our Lives, the famous songwriter Hoagy Carmichael performs a duet of “Chopsticks” with Harold Russell, a World War II Navy veteran who lost both of his hands in combat and won an Academy Award for his performance in the film. Mr. Russell's prosthetic hooks that served as his hands did not deter him from delivering a fantastic rendition of the familiar tune!

Today, many composers, arrangers, piano teachers, and music educators are still writing variations and arrangements on the infamous theme, including Robert D. Vandall, David Carr Glover, Nancy and Randall Faber, and Margo Guryan. Many of these arrangements (notably Margo Guryan’s The Chopsticks Variations) are available for purchase at West Music. “Chopsticks” will undoubtedly remain an extremely popular piano piece for many years to come!


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Tags: Chopsticks, Euphemia Allen, Arthur de Lulli, Alexander Borodin, Cesar Cui, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, Anatoly Lyadov, Nikolai Scherbachov, Music History, Song History, Billy Mayerl
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