Whenever you put kids and a piano together, sooner or later somebody will play “Chopsticks.” It’s a tune that can be picked out by ear. No lessons required.
“Chopsticks” has an interesting history. A 16-year-old Glasgow girl named Euphemia Allen wrote a piece she called “The Celebrated Chop Waltz.” Her brother Mozart (her other two brothers were named Handel and Haydn!) published it for her in 1877. Mozart gave Euphemia a pseudonym: Arthur De Lulli.
Later editions of the sheet music bore the title “Chop Sticks Waltz” and later simply “Chopsticks.” Euphemia wrote two versions: solo and duet (with an oom-pah-pah bass).
In the duet version, the upper part is usually played with two index fingers, but Euphemia noted something different on the sheet music: This part must be played with both hands turned sideways, the little fingers the lowest, so that the movements of the hands imitate the chopping from which the waltz gets its name.
A pianist demonstrates Euphemia’s prescribed technique in the first 20 seconds of this video:
Euphemia Allen never published any other compositions, setting up a mystery that music historians have pondered ever since. Some have concluded that she didn’t write the music, she merely arranged a pre-existing piece. But no pre-existing piece has ever been found. Those who doubt that Euphemia wrote “Chopsticks” cite as evidence: 1) she was a 16-year-old girl and 2) we know of no other pieces she composed. I guess they can’t wrap their brains around the idea of a young, female, one-hit wonder.
Another twist in this musical mystery involves Russian composer Alexander Borodin (the music for Kismet was adapted from his works). In 1877, the same year that Euphemia Allen’s composition was published in the U.K., Borodin’s young daughter Gania banged out a two-finger tune known to Russian children as “Tati-Tati,” considered quite similar to “Chopsticks” (although the Russian melody has a two-beat rhythm and “Chopsticks” has a three-beat waltz rhythm.) Borodin was amused. He improvised a bass part and played a duet with Gania.
He called it “The Coteletten Polka,” which can be translated as “Cutlet Polka” or “Chop Polka.” Borodin shared the piece with his composer friends, including Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, who all wrote variations on the simple theme, later gathered and published together in a volume titled Paraphrases. Yet music historians have been unable to establish a connection between “Chopsticks” and “The Coteletten Polka.”
“Chopsticks” shows up a lot in the movies. Marilyn Monroe played it with Tom Ewell in The Seven Year Itch. Harold Russell played it with Hoagy Carmichael in The Best Years of Our Lives. (Russell was a WWII Navy veteran who lost both his hands while serving. A non-actor, he won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his role in 1947.)
Tom Hanks and Robert Loggia played “Chopsticks” in the famous piano scene at FAO Schwartz in the 1988 movie Big (starting in this video at minute 1:25, after the “Heart and Soul” duet):
That’s the staying power of “Chopsticks” – whoever wrote it.
Paulette Bochnig Sharkey