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If you’ve spent anytime sitting by a piano, you’ve probably learned how to play Chopsticks. It has to be the most performed composition for piano ever. So simple – even I can play it. So…what’s the backstory on this little ditty?
The piece is actually a waltz written for the piano. The original name was The Celebrated Chop Waltz, written in 1877 by British composer Euphemia Allen. It is the only composition that Allen ever published – she was 16 years old when she wrote it. She published it using the alias Arthur de Lulli. Her brother was a music publisher, which gave her an easy path to publication.
She called it a chop waltz because she had an unusual instruction in the notes of the piece. She specified to the performer that the melody should be played with both hands held vertically, little fingers down and palms facing one another, striking the keys in a chopping motion.
Some more famous composers included variations of the melody in some of their works. In 1878 and 1879, five Russian composers – Cui, Lyadov, Borodin, Rimsky-Korsakov and Shcherbachov – each wrote variations of the theme and published them collectively in a piano collection titled Paraphrases. Later, a version by Liszt was added to the collection.
Over time, people performed the piece without the chopping action, and the name morphed into Chopsticks.
It’s been used thousands of times in movies, cartoons and television shows. Here’s a clip of one of the most famous – the scene in the 1988 film Big when Tom Hanks and Robert Loggia perform Chopsticks on the floor at the FAO Schwarz toy store in New York. The Chopsticks part starts at 1:25 (after they first play Heart and Soul). Enjoy the flashback!