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Claude Debussy

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L122, CD118

About this work

Long before the 1911 arrival of the popular classic Alexander's Ragtime Band by Irving Berlin, the music of the American Negro community had become increasingly fashionable as a form of entertainment. Ragtime music was widely heard in Europe, particularly on the sandy beaches of the fashionable bathing resorts of Edwardian England's southern coast.

Many of these deep-south songs were in jaunty cakewalk rhythm. This is best described as an act of parody, in which, it is supposed, Negro slaves would caricature the haughty manners of their white owners in song and dance routines. The winner would be awarded with a prize, normally in the form of a cake. Though its very existence and title would be unthinkable in these socially enlightened times, things were not so then. Cakewalk contests became extremely popular in the U.S. during the latter part of the nineteenth century and indeed, well into the twentieth. The cakewalk was originally popularized by vaudeville artists, including Bert Williams and George Walker, who were the first white exponents to actually "black up," a gesture which was just as politically incorrect and insensitive as the original genre itself.

Debussy's Le Petit Nègre for solo piano followed the enormous popular success of his Golliwogg's Cakewalk, the last piece from his suite Children's Corner, and was written and published in 1909. The work was commissioned as a piano tutor called Methode de piano, written and edited by Theodore Lacke. The intention was to provide aspiring young pianists with a volume of pieces which were equally well calculated to afford modest technical advancement, and to provide delight and musical insight for both players and listeners alike. The title in its original French "Le Petit Nègre" (or "The Little Niger") was Debussy's own. Questions of its political correctness or otherwise would doubtless not have occurred to him, and he must have been surprised when his publishers suggested a new anglicized title "The Little Negro" in order to minimize any possible offense the first version would have aroused. Though another fine example of Debussy's skill in adapting populist genres for his own purposes, Le Petit Nègre is far easier to play than its companion piece Polliwog's cakewalk, and is in fact one of the simplest and most approachable piano pieces Debussy ever wrote. As such, its continuing popularity as a study piece for young players continues to this day.

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