Feb 08

Cat and Mouse: imagining Debussy’s Serenade of the Doll

It’s amazing what strange but illuminating thought-processes occur when you’re rehearsing…

The Scholars’ Lunchtime Concert in March will be commemorating the centenary of the death of Debussy in a programme of chamber works combined with images from the Impressionist era; one of the works is ‘Serenade of the Doll,’ from Children’s Corner, a suite of piano pieces dedicated to Debussy’s then three-year-old daughter, Claude-Emma (known as Chou-Chou), in an arrangement for violin and piano.

Lydia Cheng

‘Serenade of the Doll’ is a surprisingly moving jewel-like miniature, using the pentatonic scale to evoke the porcelain doll in a sprightly triple-metre. Working in rehearsal with third-year Music Scholar and violinist, Lydia Cheng, we were looking at ways to bring the contrasts to the fore, to explore the lilting waltz-like feel and the delicate staccato passages that give the piece its character. The contrasting textures follow each other quite quickly, and we were examining how much depth of tone was suited to the central section.

At one point, we’d been talking about the way the melodic line seems to nudge itself along, followed by a rising minor third and a sudden octave leap; it’s skittish, ungainly, as though something in the child’s nursery has fallen over.’It’s like a cartoon,’ Lydia observed at one point, ‘you know, where the characters tip-toe down a staircase. It’s a bit like Tom and Jerry!’

So, with this in mind, we played through the entire piece again – and suddenly, it came to life. We realised that the music isn’t always about a rose-tinted recollection of childhood, of a panoply of perfect toys tidily on display in a nursery; sometimes, it can be about the trips and tumbles too, the knocks and tiny accidents, the cheerful blunders that are a part of finding your feet as a toddler. This is reflected both rhythmically as well as in the harmonic language, as it trips lightly from parallel ninths through chromaticism and touches of whole-tonality; it’s finding its own harmonic feet too.

Here’s Debussy himself playing on a piano-roll:

I don’t think anyone has channeled Tom and Jerry in performing Debussy before, but it certainly works. Come along to the performance on Weds 28 March to hear it for yourself…

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