N is for Negre – Debussy’s Le Petit Negre

Introducing pupils to their first piece by a major composer is one of the pleasures of teaching. With Bach and Schumann, who composed for children – or, with Mozart, who composed as a child –  there is plenty of repertoire available for the early stages of tuition.

With Debussy, an introduction usually comes a little later, and Le Petit Nègre is a good starting-point for a Grade 4-5 pianist. In fact, the piece was first published in 1909 as one of forty pieces by different composers in the Méthode élémentaire de Piano by Théodore Lack.

Le Petit Nègre is a bouncy Cakewalk in C Major, with overtones of the earlier Golliwogg’s Cakewalk from The Children’s Corner Suite. The eponymous Cakewalk was a popular dance at the time, as the magic of YouTube allows us to see:

- and the catchy, syncopated Cakewalk rhythm is a constant feature in the outer sections of Le Petit Nègre, needing a firm grip.

LH chromatic thirds are quite a rarity at this grade, and need careful fingering; there is also the challenge of LH staccato vs RH legato to contend with, as well as the LH accurately leapfrogging over the RH theme.

The lyrical middle section is a good example of a melody at the octave shared between the hands, surrounding an inner, chordal off-beat accompaniment. Balance between the different elements, and careful shaping of the phrases, are essential.

Debussy later used the opening theme to represent the English Soldier in the delightful ballet La Boîte à Joujoux of 1913, which was orchestrated by Caplet. Hear it below at 6:15, introduced by the  piccolo:

So, there is plenty here to stretch young pianists who are ready for greater technical demands, and who enjoy the physical energy of rhythm. Le petit berger, from the Children’s Corner Suite, is also a good first encounter with Debussy; it is slightly easier, with scope for  sensitive colouring of the whole-tone and pentatonic flavours.

But the irrepressible, extrovert Le petit Nègre has an attractive charm for player and listener. And, at a concert or a festival, it’s real winner.

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