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The Golliwogg secret Debussy took to the grave

Why did Claude Debussy, perhaps the most quintessentially French composer who ever lived, briefly lapse into English when dreaming up titles for a suite of piano music dedicated to his infant daughter?

Part of the answer may lie buried in Hampstead Cemetery in Fortune Green Road.A faint trail of clues connect the Florence Upton (1873-1922), who's buried in the cemetery, with Debussy via a mysterious English nanny. And, like some Agatha Christie mystery, the case rests on subtle variations in the spelling of ‘Golliwogg’.

Claude Debussy (1862-1918) - composed the piano suite Children's Corner featuring the Golliwogg's Cake-Walk

That character was dreamed up and named by the 21-year-old Florence, who, faced with financial difficulties, decided to write illustrated children’s books to earn a little cash. She was living at the time at 76 Fellows Road, Hampstead, with her grandparents, her widowed mother Bertha and Bertha’s unmarried sisters.

Upstairs in the attic was a stash of dolls, and it was these that would come to life in Florence’s books, which she wrote and illustrated herself – though mother helped when it came to converting Florence’s storylines into something resembling verse. But only the Golliwogg went on to have his own adventures outside the books, including a long stint on Robertson’s jam jars, and immortalisation in Debussy’s piano suite Children's Corner, the last piece of which is entitled Golliwogg’s Cake Walk.

The Golliwogg appears in Florence’s very first book, The Adventures of Two Dutch Dolls, immediately recognisable by his electric-shock Afro, googly eyes and full, grinning lips. So popular was the heroic Golliwogg, the book’s title was lengthened to include him by the time of the first reprint a year later, and he appeared in a new book just about every year until 1909.

But how did Debussy get wind of the Golliwogg when composing the suite between 1906 and 1908? By the time the character appeared on jam jars in 1910, and in dictionaries everywhere thereafter, the final ‘g’ had been dropped from Golliwogg – yet Debussy spells the word with two final ‘g’s. He must have seen it in Florence’s books.

Debussy and his second wife Emma had their daughter Emma-Claude in 1905. He began work on Children’s Corner soon after, dedicating it “À ma chère petite Chouchou” – his pet name for his little girl. As was the fashion, Debussy employed an English nanny to care for his young daughter:

Pasteur Vallery-Radot, in his edition of Debussy’s letters to his wife, remembers visiting the composer’s home and overhearing him reproach the gouvernante Anglaise for being too strict with his daughter – “remember, she is very young!” It’s plausible she brought along some of Florence’s books to read to her young charge when not telling her off.

In The Golliwogg at the Sea-Side the Golliwogg treats the Dutch dolls to a trip to a seaside hotel, where a grand ball was to be held in the evening. Sadly, there was no cake walking that night, nor at any other point in the Golliwogg work. More likely, Debussy witnessed the modish dance in the Parisian nightclubs he reluctantly visited.

The Concise Oxford Dictionary has it as a “kind of dance developed from a negro contest in graceful walking, with a cake for prize”. This much could be guessed without the dictionary’s aid just by listening to Debussy’s music. Debussy has his Golliwogg start his walk very jauntily, but he soon stumbles, forgets the steps, falls into a moody reverie, recovers his confidence and the rhythm, falls over his feet and ends not with a whimper but a bang.

To this day Golliwog’s Cake Walk – which sounds particularly unpleasant when played badly – will torment parents whose children are making moderate progress on the piano. They can make their way to Florence’s grave in Hampstead Cemetery to pay their respects.

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