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 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
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.
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
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.