Poster The first edition of "The Children's Corner"
The first edition of "The Children's Corner"

'Children's Corner': Inside Debussy's classic for kids

Claude-Emma Debussy was only three years old when her father wrote a six-part piano suite starring her favorite toys. Captivated by his daughter's childhood, Claude Debussy composed his tender 1908 work, The Children's Corner, both to entertain her and to explore music through the eyes of a child.

The Children's Corner isn't for children to play, nor is it exclusively about them: it incorporates both the experience of being young and the nostalgia of watching a child grow up. Though it shows his technical prowess, Debussy simplified his playing and even took a stab at humor throughout the piece to amuse his little one.

He called her Chou-Chou and loved being a father. Though in his 50s, Debussy was delighted to have a toddler. He raised her with an English nanny, and the toys in Chou-Chou's playroom took on English names. Taking a cue from these women, the "anglomaniac" composer gave each part of his suite an English title.

The first movement, named after the piano textbook Gradus ad Parnassum, depicts a pianist playing key exercises. The notes grow more and more complex throughout the piece—more than the average child could handle playing (though this youngster seems pretty okay with it). Perhaps it speaks to Debussy's hope that his daughter would one day be up to the task.

Next comes "Jimbo's Lullaby." Inspired by Chou-Chou's stuffed elephant who apparently needed a bedtime story before going to sleep, Debussy re-imagined the animal's sleepy footsteps through a progression of climbing and falling keystrokes. Music writers have argued Debussy misspelled the name of the song, and that the elephant was actually named Jumbo (his grasp on the English language he loved might not have been that great after all).

The next parts take us from delicate porcelain chimes ("Serenade of the Doll") to scenes of a dark winter afternoon when children are trapped indoors ("The Snow is Dancing"). The next movement, "The Little Shepherd," uses three piano solos to create a landscape far from the Paris of Chou-Chou's childhood, but perhaps visited in her daydreams.

The last part is "Golliwogg's Cakewalk," a ragtime dance suggesting the choppy movements of the rag doll it was named for. The dance is interrupted by notes from Richard Wagner's opera Tristan und Isolde. The dark breaks are met with banjo-like responses ending with a slapstick flourish, as if giving the rag doll one floppy bow. (Unfortunately, while the music is delightful, the doll that inspired it is anything but.)

When The Children's Corner was published, Debussy wrote a humble dedication for his daughter: "To my dear little Chou-Chou, with her father's tender apologies for what is to follow." Though sweet at the time, his words also foreshadowed a dark break in the Debussys' happiness: Chou-Chou outlived her father by just over a year, dying of diphtheria in 1919 when she was 14 years old.

Hailey Colwell is a recent graduate of the University of Minnesota and a co-founder of Theatre Corrobora.

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