Notespinner

Thoughts on composing, teaching and performing music, by Fergus Black

image
black performers advertise a cakewalk. Historic image.

Le Petit Negre or The English Soldier?

What is to be done with Debussy's Little Negro? It is a good piece, around grade 5-6, with enough difficulty to be useful, and yet it is also an attractive piece to the young pianist, but unusable with its current title.

Some comments on the piece

The difficulties are

  • the parallel left hand minor thirds at the beginning require practice;

  • the separation of the tune in octaves from the accompaniment in inner voices at bar 22 requires a good ear, and the ability to balance parts.

and yet the piece is also enticing, both physically to play, and in its mood:

  • the hand crossing and octave displacement are thrilling;

  • the piece has a jazzy, fun feel.

The title

But then there is the title. Oh dear! Originally it was The Little Nigar, then Le petit negre.

I have suggested to several students that they play it, but they simply shake their heads, and don't get past the title; even when it is in French.

So, I propose changing the title, in order to rescue the piece: I thought about simply calling it 'Cakewalk', but I figured it wouldn't take long for the term cakewalk to be called out for its connections to white performers blacking up for minstrelsy. (See footnote).

Fortunately, Debussy himself comes to the rescue, since he also used the main theme of LPN in his ballet for children, La boîte à joujoux, where it characterises an English soldier.

So there we have it. Ladies and Gentlemen, I present to you a new composition by M. Claude Debussy: Le Soldat Anglais. Rehabilitated.

Other racist titles in classical music

Now, before we think our job is complete, there is another cakewalk to be dealt with: the infamous Golliwog's Cakewalk in Children's Corner. And further back, there is John Dowland's The Frog's Galliard, although I am pretty sure most people don't get that racist slur. Onwards.


Photo credit: Minstrel Poster Collection (Library of Congress)

I know that the cakewalk has a richer history, which is not all about white appropriation, but that is the main bit that people know. If you want a more nuanced history, try this article on the cakewalk and its take-up by Debussy and other French composers:

Smith, Lindy (2008) "Out of Africa: The Cakewalk in Twentieth-Century French Concert Music," Nota Bene: Canadian Undergraduate Journal of Musicology: Vol. 1: Iss. 1, Article 6.

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