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Children's Corner (L. 113) is a six-movement suite for solo piano by Claude Debussy. It was published by Durand in 1908, and was given its world première in Paris by Harold Bauer on 18 December that year. In 1911, an orchestration of the work by Debussy's friend André Caplet received its première and was subsequently published. A typical performance of the suite lasts roughly 15 minutes.
It is dedicated to Debussy's daughter, Claude-Emma (known as "Chou-Chou"), who was three years old at the time. The pieces are not intended to be played by children; rather they are meant to be evocative of childhood and some of the toys in Claude-Emma's toy collection.
Claude-Emma was born on 30 October 1905 in Paris, and is described as a lively and friendly child who was adored by her father. She died of diphtheria on 14 July 1919, scarcely a year after her father's death.
There are six pieces in the suite, each with an English-language title. This choice of language is most likely Debussy's nod towards Chou-Chou's English governess. The pieces are:
- Doctor Gradus ad Parnassum
- Jimbo's Lullaby
- Serenade for the Doll
- The Snow is Dancing
- The Little Shepherd
- Golliwogg's Cakewalk
Doctor Gradus ad Parnassum
The title of the first alludes to Johann Joseph Fux's (1660-1741), Gradus ad Parnassum ("Steps to Parnassus"). Gradus ad Parnassum "became the first 'counterpoint text' in the modern sense and the greatest schoolbook in the history of European music." Although it is unlikely that this textbook would be found on the book shelf of the average French pianist, the "Gradus Ad Parnassum" by Muzio Clementi was - and still is in some quarters. The exercises resemble Czerny's in many respects and are often boring to practice or listen to for many people. This piece is actually a rather ingenious study in finger independence with a Twentieth Century vocabulary. In the middle, the pianist slows down and tries his material in other keys for exercise. Debussy's Doctor Gradus Ad Parnassum is of intermediate difficulty and requires experienced fingers. The pianist gets wilder toward the end and finishes the piece with a bang.
This work describes an elephant, Jumbo, who came from the French Sudan and lived briefly in the Jardin des Plantes in Paris around the time of Debussy's birth. The misspelling "Jimbo" betrays the Parisian accent which often confuses the pronunciation of "um" and "un" with "im" and "in". It is a beautiful lullaby with some dark moments and whole-tone passages in the middle.
Serenade of the Doll
This piece, in triple meter, is marked Allegretto ma non troppo (moderately fast, but not too fast). It is a description of an Oriental porcelain doll and features the Chinese pentatonic scale throughout. Debussy notes that the entire piece should be played with the soft pedal. Some pianists contend that Debussy really meant "Serenade For the Doll".
The Snow is Dancing
Technically, this piece is quite difficult as it requires precise semi-detached playing in both hands with the melody between them. Again, there are darker moments in the bass near the middle. It portrays snow and muted objects seen through it.
The Little Shepherd
The Little Shepherd depicts a shepherd with his flute. There are three solos and three commentaries following them. The first solo actually has a breath mark at the end. This piece has different modes in it and uses dissonances which resolve into tonality.
At the time of its composition, Golliwoggs were in fashion, due partly to the popularity at that time of the novels of Florence Kate Upton ("golliwog" is a later usage). They were stuffed black dolls with red pants, red bow ties and wild hair, somewhat reminiscent of the black-face minstrels of the time. This is a ragtime piece with its syncopations and banjo-like effects. The dynamic range is quite large and very effective. The B section of this dance is interrupted on several occasions by the love-death leitmotif of Richard Wagner's opera Tristan und Isolde, marked avec une grande émotion (with great feeling). Each quotation is followed with banjo imitations. The cakewalk was a dance or a strut and the dancer with the most elaborate steps won a cake ("took the cake").
Orchestrations and arrangements
- French composer André Caplet orchestrated the entire suite in 1911.
- Danish composer Hans Abrahamsen orchestrated the entire suite in 2015.
- Leigh Howard Stevens transcribed five of the six movements for marimba.
- Cross, Anthony (February 1967). "Portrait of Debussy. 2: Debussy and Bartók". The Musical Times. 108 (1488): 125–127, 129–131.
- McKinley, Ann (Autumn 1986). "Debussy and American Minstrelsy". The Black Perspective in Music. Foundation for Research in the Afro-American Creative Arts. 13 (3): 249–258.
- Schmitz, E. Robert (1950). The Piano Works of Claude Debussy, pp. 117–125. Foreword by Virgil Thomson. New York: Duell, Sloan & Pearce.
- Children's Corner: Scores at the International Music Score Library Project
- Sherry Lin-Yu, Chen (2001). Debussy's "Children's Corner": A pedagogical approach (D.M.A. Thesis). Rice University. Retrieved 13 October 2012.