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
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
That character was dreamed up and named by the 21-year-old
Florence, who, faced with financial difficulties, decided to write illustrated
childrens 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
Berthas unmarried sisters.
Upstairs in the attic was a stash of dolls, and it was these
that would come to life in Florences books, which she wrote and
illustrated herself though mother helped when it came to converting
Florences storylines into something resembling verse. But only the
Golliwogg went on to have his own adventures outside the books, including a
long stint on Robertsons jam jars, and immortalisation in Debussys
piano suite Children's
Corner, the last piece of which is entitled Golliwoggs Cake Walk.
The Golliwogg appears in Florences 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
books 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
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
gs. He must have seen it in Florences books.
Debussy and his second wife Emma had their daughter
Emma-Claude in 1905. He began work on Childrens 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 Debussys
letters to his wife, remembers visiting the composers home and
overhearing him reproach the gouvernante Anglaise for being too strict with his
daughter remember, she is very young! Its plausible
she brought along some of Florences books to read to her young charge
when not telling her off.
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
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 dictionarys aid just
by listening to Debussys 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 Golliwogs 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
Florences grave in Hampstead Cemetery to pay their respects.