Children’s Corner

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            1.  Doctor Gradus ad Parnassum

            2.  Jimbo’s Lullaby

            3.  Serenade for the Doll

            4.  The Snow is Dancing           

            5.  The Little Shepherd

            6.  Golliwogg’s Cakewalk


          More than anyone, Claude Debussy truly was the father of much of the philosophical basis for the complete turnover in musical art that defined the twentieth century. His compositions established entirely new ways of thinking about the fundamental ways of defining and composing music in Western culture. And, along the way, he composed some of the most original, creative, and dare we say, beautiful music in the repertoire. His name, of course, is indelibly linked with what is popularly called “musical impressionism,” a term he deplored, but that doesn’t really specifically tell you much. What you may say is that he largely worked within a musical style that made little use of so many of the characteristics of a musical tradition that really dominated the concert halls of the 18th and 19th centuries. Most of us are familiar with concepts such as sonata form; development; key relationships; major and minor tonalities, with their respective scales, counterpoint, fugues, and especially “developing” musical ideas in an ongoing linear fashion. As dominant as these procedures were, Debussy saw other ways of creating and working with musical ideas. His specifically French way of looking at things was quite a contrast to the ideas and methods of the German-speaking composers.   Debussy was not much interested in systems of musical composition, wherein each part—large or small—had a rational, expected, and traditional relationship to every other part. Rather, he focused upon listening to musical sounds in new ways—considering them just for their intrinsic sound, and not how they might fit into a hierarchy as a mere building block. He opened up new ways of composing and listening, and the musical world was changed forever.

            Children’s Corner was composed between 1906 and 1908 as a suite of six movements for piano solo, and was dedicated to his beloved daughter, Claude-Emma, who was about three when the work was finished.  The titles were originally given in English.  The suite has long enjoyed success, and is in the standard repertoire of solo piano.  But three years after its completion and publication, it was arranged for orchestra by Debussy’s close friend, André Caplet.   While not a name well known to contemporary American audiences, Caplet was a talented composer—he won the Prix de Rome before Ravel achieved that honor—and, of course, was the orchestrator of Debussy’s evergreen Clair de lune in the version so beloved by symphony orchestra audiences.

            The title of the first movement is a wry reference to a title used for many centuries for instructional books and music.  It literally means “steps to Parnassus,” and implies the student will ascend in understanding and skill each step up the way to the abode of the Greek gods.   A famous set of piano exercises by the indefatigable Carl Czerny (and Muzio Clementi, as well) bore the title, and Debussy composed as his first movement a tongue in cheek (hence, the “Doctor”) reference to one of the familiar, busy finger etudes. There, the comparison ends.  Debussy’s ethereal arabesques and washes of sound are from world distinctly remote from pedantic, pragmatic exercises.

            Jimbo was an elephant that was a famous resident of the zoo at the historic Jardin des plantes de Paris—the main botanical garden in France.  Debussy picturesquely portrayed the ponderous pachyderm beginning with droll double basses.  Debussy’s frequent use of pentatonic and whole-tones scales is in much in evidence.  That being said, it is a rather melancholy picture of life in a zoo for the poor animal.

            The third movement is a depiction of a Chinese porcelain doll, and of course, what musical element is more appropriate (clichéd?) than to use the five-note Chinese musical scale and frequent intervals of a fourth?  Moreover, the brisk, light, staccato texture is perfect to depict a presumed allusion to the mincing feminine steps of stock ethnic caricatures.  But, it is a withal a cute piece that a characteristic example of the composer’s penchant for challenging the listener to guess just what key he is in.

            The Snow is Dancing is an apt example of Debussy’s gift for painting in sound delicate images that seem to exist fleetingly only in the moment.  The diversion in the middle is based on the familiar whole-tone scale, giving it a kind of “floating” atmosphere.

            In The Little Shepherd we hear him playing his wind instrument, and there are three distinct episodes.  Each brief, meditative solo is followed by a dancing, spritely response with a gentle cadence.  The tunes are an apt example of Debussy’s frequent use of modal scales, rather than the traditional major and minor of Western harmonic practice.

            Finally, the last movement is perhaps one of the more famous ones, and is a cogent example of exquisitely French versions of American popular music.  A cakewalk, of course, is a dance that was a mainstay of nineteenth century American minstrel shows.   The dance is characterized by syncopations and vigorous, strutting rhythms.  “Golliwogg” was a black, stuffed doll, dressed in a stereotypical minstrel show garb, and completely en vogue at the time.  Of course, the whole phenomenon is appropriately dismissed as hopelessly racist today.  But, then, the French loved it.  Besides it was exotic, exemplary of the “other,” and that was a salient aspect of late nineteenth-century European cultural preoccupations.  Typical of Debussy’s wry sense of humor is his rather veiled reference to the famous chord from Wagner’s opera, Tristan und Isolde—a bizarre and cheeky juxtaposition if there ever was one.  That off the wall allusion returns several times in the middle section, played by languorous strings, surrounded by “banjo plucks.”

            Those who are not experienced pianists, hearing these delightful works in this remarkably adroit and imaginative version for orchestra, can be forgiven for thinking that Debussy must certainly have conceived them originally for the orchestra.   Collectively, they are an elegant tribute to Caplet’s complete mastery of the orchestral “sound” of his close friend.

--Wm. E. Runyan

©2020 William E. Runyan