Work: Children's Corner
About This Work
Children's Corner was written for Debussy's three-year-old daughter, Claude-Emma (nicknamed "Chou-Chou"), and bears the following dedication: "to my dear Chou-Chou, with the tender apologies of her father for what is to follow."
The composer's sentiments were presumably an acknowledgement of the inevitable loss of innocence that comes with growing up, but his words take on a darker, more prophetic, hue in hindsight -- Claude-Emma died from diphtheria only a year after Debussy's own death from cancer in 1918.
Though ostensibly children's pieces, the miniatures that make up Children's Corner are not meant for children to play; rather they are meant to evoke the mood and essence of childhood, and the fantasies of youth. The titles, all of them in English, reflect not only the rampant anglophilia in Paris at the time of composition (and Debussy's own affection for England), but also Chou-Chou's relationship with her English nanny, who helped to choose them. The set, as a whole, captures the particular charm of Debussy's piano music, in spirit if not in style. It possesses great humor and lightness, real beauty, and deceptive technical difficulties.
The first movement, "Doctor Gradus ad Parnassum," is a light-hearted reference to Muzio Clementi's well-known piano exercises, Gradus ad Parnassum, published in 1817. It parodies a child performing these exercises, initially tearing through the bright, fast passages and eventually becoming distracted, bored, and finally slamming down the final cadence with relief. This movement looks forward to Debussy's later Études, in which he lampoons the five-finger exercises of Carl Czerny. The second movement is about a toy elephant, and is called "Jimbo's Lullaby"; the ponderous gait of the elephant and the lightness of its stuffing are illustrated in whole-tone harmony. The third movement "Serenade for the Doll" is a quick, dance-like song for a little girl's favorite toy, while "Snow is Dancing" gives us a picture of falling ice crystals.
"The Little Shepherd" tells a story of a young shepherd, playing his pipe, dancing around the meadow, resting by a tree, and finally falling asleep. The last movement, "Golliwogg's Cake Walk," was inspired by American ragtime music, which, considered plebeian in its native country, had taken Europe by storm. Debussy also managed a tweak at Wagner, by quoting the famous Tristan & Isolde theme, and following it with a pianistic chuckle. It's title comes from Golliwogg, a doll that was popular in Chou-Chou's day, and a popular children's game associated with the doll. The game involved walking to the music (the steps required are specific, and seeing kids perform them is adorable) and whoever looked most enthused about getting cake received a slice.
The Children's Corner suite is certainly not characteristic of Debussy's ephemeral style -- which by now had fully developed impressionistic qualities -- however, it is a delightful work, and it showcases Debussy's ability to create unique tonal colors.
-- All Music Guide
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