Monday, March 12, 2018

English suites and others no. 28

In our last entry, the French composer Gabriel Fauré was writing piano pieces to entertain his ladyfriend's small daughter, which he assembled into a suite, the Dolly Suite, that was later orchestrated by somebody else.

Today we're about a dozen years later. The somewhat younger French composer Claude Debussy is writing piano pieces to entertain his own small daughter, which he assembled into a suite, the Children's Corner Suite, that was later orchestrated by somebody else.

The even better coincidence is that the two little girls had the same mother. She was a singer named Emma Moyse, first married name Bardac. After her affair with Fauré, her son Raoul ("Mi-a-ou" of the Dolly Suite) was a piano pupil of Debussy's. His mother and his teacher threw up their respective spouses and ran off to England together, having their own daughter and getting married, in that order. Where the older girl was nicknamed Dolly, this one was called Chou-Chou.

The pieces her dad wrote for her are: Doctor Gradus ad Parnassum (0.00), Jimbo's Lullaby (2.24), Serenade for the Doll (6.13), The Snow is Dancing (8.51), The Little Shepherd (11.34), and Golliwogg's Cakewalk (13.54).

(Some of those movement titles could use annotation. Gradus ad Parnassum was the title of a famous 18th-century music textbook, and Debussy's piano original is a finger exercise. Jimbo is, it says here, a French pronunciation of Jumbo, which was the pseudo-African name of a circus elephant so famous in its day that the mere name became a word meaning "very large." I bet you didn't know that origin. And if you don't know what a golliwogg was, you're better off. A golliwogg, name taken from a series of now mercifully-forgotten English children's books, was a doll in the shape of a grotesque caricature of a black person and probably the origin of the ethnic slur found in its final syllable. After it was realized how offensive these dolls were, they were nevertheless defended as innocent mementos of their defenders' childhoods, sort of the English equivalent of Zwarte Piet. Try not to think of that as you listen to the Cakewalk, the only extroverted music Debussy ever wrote.)

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