Debussy: Suite bergamasque, Estampes, Children's Corner & Pour le piano
Walter Gieseking – The complete Homocord recordings and other rarities
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No 1: Doctor Gradus ad Parnassum
No 2: Jimbo's Lullaby
No 3: Serenade for the Doll
No 4: The snow is dancing
No 5: The Little Shepherd
No 6: Golliwog's Cake-Walk
The English titles are original. Debussy was a great anglophile (although he spoke little English) and Chouchou’s governess was an Englishwoman, Miss Gibbs. The third piece of the suite, Serenade for the Doll, did have its title first in French (Sérénade à la Poupée) and was written two years before the rest—when Chouchou was only four months old.
Contrary to what some might suppose, this is not music that Debussy wrote for his daughter to play immediately, despite his dedication on the score: ‘To my beloved Chouchou, with the tender excuses of her father for that which follows.’ She did learn to play the piano later on, and Marguerite Long remembers hearing her play the fifth piece of this suite, just as her father did. When she was very young, she told Madame Long: ‘I don’t know what to do. Daddy wants me to play the piano … But he forbids me to make a noise.’
This is not, however, childish music, even if it can be managed by youngsters. The initial Doctor Gradus ad Parnassum is much more than a warm-up, even if Debussy is thumbing his nose at poor old Clementi and his boring studies. When the tempo marking was missing from the first proof, Debussy wrote to his publisher: ‘Doctor Gradus ad Parnassum is a sort of hygienic and progressive gymnastic exercise; it should therefore be played every morning, before breakfast, beginning at modéré and working up to animé.’ I think he was being just a trifle sarcastic. There is a lot of beautiful music in this piece, and to play it as an exercise would not do it justice.
Chouchou’s stuffed elephant is portrayed in Jimbo’s Lullaby, where the composer writes the description ‘un peu gauche’ (a little clumsy). One can imagine a scenario in which the elephant at first refuses to go to sleep; then, in the middle section (where the new theme echoes the lullaby ‘Dodo, l’enfant do’) he has a story told to him; and then when the music returns to the initial tempo and major mode (and with the two themes combined), he finally nods off. There is great tenderness and humour in this piece—qualities that pervade the entire suite.
The Serenade for the Doll is a remarkable piece, combining simplicity with sophisticated means of expression. To the strumming of a guitar accompaniment (‘delicate and graceful’) the doll dances for us, while the serenader sings and sighs. The piece has those wonderful sudden changes of mood so typical of children. Debussy asks for the soft pedal to be used throughout—even when marked forte.
The next piece, The snow is dancing, depicts the bleakness of a snowy day and the sombre mood it provokes—waiting for the sun to return. It’s interesting that Debussy uses a four-note ascending motif as an ostinato that is also found in Le tombeau des naïades (from Chansons de Bilitis), written some ten years earlier, in which ice and snow form the backdrop. This is the hardest piece of the set in every sense. It takes great control of touch and sound, especially to get that ‘blank’ effect. Debussy was very meticulous in differentiating between pp and ppp, and this should be observed. He also insisted that interpreters of his music should imagine the piano as an instrument without hammers, striking the key in such a way so that the vibrations of the other notes would be heard ‘quivering distantly in the air’. When Debussy made rare appearances abroad playing pianos that he wasn’t familiar with, there were often complaints that he couldn’t be heard. This was, for sure, a new way of playing the instrument!
The Little Shepherd, of which Chochou also had a toy, is a pastoral poem in music, in which the melancholic shepherd improvises on his flute. Twice he becomes slightly more jovial and breaks into a dance, but ultimately the mood remains muted. One can smell the countryside and breathe the fresh air in these remarkable thirty-one bars.
In 1903 Debussy heard Sousa and his band play in Paris and called him ‘the king of American music’, lauding the cakewalk as their best invention. Chouchou had the doll à la mode—a dark-skinned golliwog that first became popular in England through some children’s stories. Put them both together, and you get the Golliwog’s Cake-Walk. The music is totally characteristic of ragtime, with its syncopations and march-like beat. The humour is carried into the middle section where Debussy pokes fun at Wagner, quoting the opening of Tristan und Isolde. It is amazing how many people don’t get the joke—including the pianist who gave the premiere, Harold Bauer. Debussy said, upon first hearing him play it: ‘You don’t seem to object today to the manner in which I treat Wagner.’ Bauer had no idea what he was talking about, until the ‘pitiless caricature’ (as he later described it) was pointed out to him. At the premiere Debussy stayed outside the auditorium, so nervous was he of the reception the work might receive. When Bauer told him they had laughed, he gave a huge roar and was obviously relieved. His direction to play ‘avec une grande émotion’ is, to say the least, satirical.
from notes by Angela Hewitt © 2012