If you’ve studied an instrument to even a basic level, chances are you are familiar with the “Carnival of Venice” tune. It is a lively tune in triple meter, and can be repeated unchanged, or more often is treated as a springboard for a string of variations upon the theme. It has seduced composers ranging from Paganini to Chopin to Tárrega and Briccialdi.

Its exact origin is unknown, but it is believed to be an old folk tune, the Neapolitan canzonetta ‘O cara Mamma mia”. The label “Carnival of Venice” became associated with it after it was quoted by the German composer Reinhard Kasser in his opera of the same name (Der Carneval von Venedig, 1707).

Over time, it has had English lyrics fitted to it: “My hat, it has three corners” (or in German, “Mein Hut, der hat drei Ecken”). The hat reference could again have to do with the fact that the tune was associated with the Venetian Carnival.

The most iconic item of the Venetian Carnival costume is of course the mask, and some scholars argue that ‘mask’ing the face was a ‘uniquely Venetian response’ to its rigid class hierarchy, one of the most orthodox in European history. But the hat completed the costume and helped to further obscure the identity. And the tricorn (three-cornered hat) was a popular addition in the 17th century, and has remained so.

Carnival of Venice

Many masks were directly borrowed from Commedia dell’arte, the theatre form featuring masked “types” that began in 16th century Italy: Columbina, Arlecchino (Harlequin), Zanni, Pantalone, etc. But there were others too: the distinctive Bauta covering the entire face, and with a beak-like chin to allow the wearer to talk, eat and drink but still preserve anonymity; and the Medico della peste (the Plague Doctor) with a long beak actually used during the plague in the (false) belief that it would somehow prevent the wearer from contracting the disease. The latter is commonly worn in the full costume of a doctor of the plague, as a Memento Mori, a reminder of the vanity and transience of life on earth and a reminder of our mortality, in the midst of all the revelry.

Back to the ‘Carnival of Venice’ tune. The full lyrics of this song are: “My hat it has three corners/Three corners has my hat/And had it not three corners, It would not be my hat”. The song is sung over and over, and commonly when sung by or for children, each time a word is omitted (‘hat’, ‘corners’, ‘three’), replaced by a gesture e.g. pointing to the head for ‘hat’, to the elbow for ‘corners’, etc.

In the hands of Niccolò Paganini, of course, this simple tune is transformed into a virtuosic showpiece, with a breathtaking twenty variations utilising every violinistic gimmick in the book, and lasting over twelve minutes in length. You can hear Salvatore Accardo toss it off effortlessly on YouTube.

And Frédéric Chopin uses the same tune to pay tribute to Paganini. His “Souvenir de Paganini”is a short, gentle lyrical salute in his unique style, in stark contrast to the narcissistic pyrotechnics in the Paganini. The left hand in the Chopin almost entirely keeps up the rocking accompaniment, while the right hand is left free to flourish and trill to its heart’s content. Again, if you visit YouTube, you can listen to Vladimir Ashkenazy and Idil Biret play this, back to back, each imprinting their own interpretation upon it.

If guitar is your thing, then listen to French guitarist Emmanuel Rossfelder play Francisco Tárrega’s Variations on ‘Carnival of Venice’. The preamble lasts a good two minutes before the theme makes an appearance and the variations commence. Quite remarkable is the way, about six variations in, the sound of a snare drum accompaniment is mimicked by pinching down the lowest two strings of the instrument. And the ‘scooping’ sound a few variations before it.

The parade continues. It seems like every conceivable instrument has had its iconic composer harness the potential of this simple tune. Paul Jeanjean has his version for clarinet and piano; you can hear Christopher Pell, accompanied by Noreen Polera at the piano. There is a really haunting, pianissimo variation in the minor key that is at its very centre, and the work finishes off with some impressive runs, perhaps involving circular breathing for it to be so seamless.

Then there’s Jean-Baptiste Arban with his tribute, for trumpet and orchestra. You have to hear Sergei Nakariakov, the ‘Heifetz’ of the trumpet, accompanied by the Israel Chamber Orchestra conducted by Benjamin Yusupov. There are some spectacular displays of double and triple tonguing.

An even more recent take by Allen Vizzetti (b. 1952), ‘The Carnival of Venus’, is deemed one of the most difficult trumpet works ever written, in view of its interval range and its technical demands. There is even a version for euphonium by Herbert L. Clarke.

There is also a version for double bass by Giovanni Bottesini, for harp by Wilhelm Posse, for flute and orchestra by Giulio Briccialdi and flute and piano by Mike Mower.

The popular novelty song “How Much is that Doggie in the Window?” (1952), sung memorably by Patti Page, is also derived from the ‘Carnival of Venice’ tune. Incidentally Page later became an advocate of animal rights and in 2009 recorded “Do you See That Doggie in the Shelter?” to underscore the suffering resulting from puppy mills in order to provide adorable pups in pet shops, and she championed the adoption of homeless animals in shelters instead.

(An edited version of this article was published on 15 February 2015 in my column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)