Academic journal article Current Musicology

Signification, Objectification, and the Mimetic Uncanny in Claude Debussy's "Golliwog's Cakewalk"

Academic journal article Current Musicology

Signification, Objectification, and the Mimetic Uncanny in Claude Debussy's "Golliwog's Cakewalk"

Article excerpt

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On October 30, 1905, Emma Bardac gave birth to Claude Debussy's only child, a daughter named Claude-Emma (1905-1919), affectionately known as "Chouchou." According to family friend Arthur Hartmann, Chouchou, who bore a striking resemblance to her father, was remarkably mature, and at five or six years old, she "could not be treated as a child" (Hartmann 2003:62-63). Debussy was a doting father, and the two were inseparable companions until the composer's death in 1918 (Figure 1). He dedicated his 1908 piano suite entitled Children's Corner to her, a piece in which he explores the world as seen through a child's imaginative eyes--perhaps even Chouchou's. To be sure, the piece bears Chouchou's specific imprint, with four of the six movements named after her toys: "Jimbo's Lullaby," after her stuffed elephant; "Serenade for the Doll," after Chouchou's favorite doll; "The Little Shepherd," after a toy shepherd boy; and "Golliwog's Cakewalk," after a popular minstrel doll.

Yet, several elements about this suite disrupt the lighthearted musical depiction of childhood. To begin, Debussy's dedication contains the following message: "A ma chere petite Chouchou, avec les tenders excuses de son pere pour ce qui va suivre" (To my dear little Chouchou, with her father's tender apologies for what follows). This request for forgiveness offers an initial clue that there is more beneath the playful surface of Children's Corner than meets the ear. But what about this youthful suite, which "exudes charm and tenderness," (Hinson 2007:4) could merit such an apology?

The final movement, "Golliwog's Cakewalk," particularly problematizes the childlike innocence portrayed in Childrens Corner. This movement has attracted much critical attention mainly for its juxtaposition of a ragtime-inflected cakewalk--a popular music and dance form that was in vogue at the turn of the twentieth century--with parodied quotations of Richard Wagner's "Prelude" to Tristan und Isolde. Most notably, Lawrence Kramer has suggested that the combination of these musical materials is the movement's raison d'etre, as the once-revered Wagner is put into dialogue with a "lowbrow" popular music idiom (Kramer 2004:113). Kramer echoes the familiar Debussy-Wagner topos, where Debussy struggles to escape the shadow of Wagner's influence, asserting that in "Golliwog's Cakewalk," Debussy "smilingly relativizes Wagner into insignificance," putting " Tristan cheek to cheek with music doubly primitive, being both American and African American" (Kramer 2004:113; emphasis added). However, this interpretation of "Golliwog's Cakewalk" is not entirely satisfying, as Kramer neglects important and perhaps more salient features of the movement. Relegating the history and meaning of the Golliwog doll and the cultural importance of the cakewalk to mere "trifles" (Kramer 2004:113), Kramer deals with neither title element of "Golliwog's Cakewalk" in any depth. But the status of Golliwog and the cakewalk as popular "trifles" makes an examination of their historical residues and functions in Debussy's music especially compelling.

The term "cakewalk" describes a dance form that came to characterize a specific musical genre in mid-nineteenth century United States. Dance historian and musicologist Davinia Caddy's exploration of the cakewalk traces the history of the dance from its roots in African-American slavery, to popular American entertainment, and finally to its arrival on French soil as a white, bourgeois leisure activity (Caddy 2007). After summarizing this trajectory, Caddy plucks the cakewalk from its racial context and considers its emphasis on a particularly strange style of movement as part of contemporary French tastes for "physicality." Caddy uses this term to describe both the bodily postures of the cakewalk and exercise regiments of the same time period. She wishes to avoid reductive racial interpretations of the dance, as she notes that the arena of cultural identity is "unavoidably complex" (Caddy 2007:291). …

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