(Here are my thoughts about playing this piece. Please add your thoughts in the comments at the bottom.)
From Roberts, page 214-217: A Golliwog is “the name of a black doll in the books of the illustrator Flora Upton” (titles include The Golliwog’s Circus and The Golliwog’s Auto-Go-Cart), and was a great success in Europe as a toy. A Cakewalk is a dance form that originated in America, and was played in Europe by John Phillip Souza among others. The Cakewalk has its roots in black American music and is closely related to ragtime. Debussy saw Souza play cakewalks, and wrote that perhaps cakewalks are the one advantage American music had over “other kinds of music” (from a review by Debussy in Gil Blas).
Emotional Content: This piece is clearly humorous and even includes a satirical takeoff on Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde beginning at measure 61. As in most early ragtime the tempo is moderate (allegro guisto = not too fast).
Shape and Flow: The piece is in a simple ABA form, with A being a very ragtime-like syncopated dance tune. The dynamics range from pp to sff, sometimes very suddenly, sometimes with a more conventional shape. The B section is very interesting, being an almost flirtatious, lilting section. The theme that appears at measure 61 is lifted from the prelude to Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde, and is marked “with intense feeling”. It is accompanied by light grace note chords and syncopated scmlaltzy harmonies. The overall effect is one of a somewhat silly singer taking over the dance floor to romance his love, with twittering laughter in the background.
Like ragtime’s successor jazz, it is hard to play the Golliwog’s Cakewalk wrong (“there are no mistakes in jazz”) so long as you hit the notes. This is perhaps why Schmitz comments that “…this is one of Debussy’s least misinterpreted pieces”. It is a very forgiving piece, which works in a variety of tempos and dynamics so long as you’re obviously having fun when you play it.
Having said that, I’ve become partial to a strict reading of this piece, reinforcing my opinion that Debussy has much better musical taste than I do. I play the work with an absolute minimum of pedal, and aim for a choppy, syncopated and transparent sound. Most notable are the dynamics, which I take as gospel even though they are sometimes counter-intuitive. These dynamics are part of the humor of the piece.
The opening bars clearly announce that we are in for some fun, and should be played that way: loud from the start and louder for that final chord in measure 4. But immediately get quiet in measure 6.
Watch and play with the dynamics contrasts in measures 6-9, with a real trail-off in measure 9 leading to the main theme in measure 10.
Measure 10 is the only one in section A marked mf: the rest of the section is a alternation of extremes for humorous effect.
Note the interplay of p and f in measures 14-26. The first time we start at p and get softer with a sudden crash at measure 16 and a “molto” crescendo in measure 17. The second time, at measure 22 we start p and build in a more conventional crescendo to the ff in measures 24-25.
I take the articulation marks very seriously, alternating legato and staccato as marked throughout section A. The very first time I touch the sustain pedal is the first chord in measure 25, releasing it immediately on the next staccato B-flat octaves.
Measures 26-32 are quiet and without pedal in spite of temptation otherwise. I again use the pedal for second beat of measure 33, for just that eighth note.
I use the sustain pedal more heavily in measure 38, changing pedal on the quarter beats and releasing on the second beat of measure 39, holding the underlying chords all the while.
I play this section very strictly, respecting the articulation, dynamics and rest marks throughout. I play the grace notes almost as a chirp on the chords.
Measure 61 starts the Wagner satire. This melody is messed with through measure 81, mixing it with the cakewalk theme. Once it’s understood as a parody of a very serious romantic melody the effect is hilarious.
The grace note chords first appearing in measure 63 and occurring through the rest of section B present a technical problem (one of the few in the piece): how to hold the underlying sustained chords without losing transparency. Elder (p. 264) quotes Walter Gieseking as saying “The answering effect is like a mocking tap dance and shouldn’t be played too fast. In bar 63 hold the pedal until the second beat. Don’t pedal bar 64.” I find that this works quite well.
Richard Prokop writes: “The section at m.61 or there abouts is interesting. I envision a drunk grandiosely stumbling through a room in those two measures (p avec une grande emotion) only to sober up long enough to click his heals comically in the following two measures with grace notes. Also of interest is the crescendo to p just before the grace noted chords. I try to make m.61-62 stagger rhythmically (as if I’m drunk)–so, I do a little accelerando to the F in the melody and then broaden the tempo with a little hesitation before the Db7 chord.”
I find the only interpretational challenge in measures 71-72 and 81-82. I take these measures to be the overly-romantic singer running out of breath or energy while the crowd heckles. Of course the figure in these measures is rather orchestral and again pokes fun at Wagner. I play in strict time, sort of fading out at the end of each two-measure section.
Measures 85-86 and 88-89 pose the other technical challenge: the soft high notes at the end of each section should clearly be staccato, but the underlying chords must be maintained as marked. Elder (p. 276) quotes Walter Gieseking as saying (in reference to measure 88-89) “Take the F with the left hand so that the complete half-note chord can be held without pedal, for the right-hand staccati should be short.” Elder then says “For pianists who could not stretch the tenth, he suggested catching the pedal after the bass D-flat and holding it.” My stretch is pretty good, but I cannot make the stretch described here. It works well for me to simply catch the chords with the sostenuto (middle) pedal at the beginning of measure 85 and the second eighth-note (low D-flat) of measure 88. If you don’t have a sostenuto pedal, as apparently Gieseking did not, use the sustain pedal technique described above even though that muddies up the texture a bit.
Section A reprise:
This is pretty much identical to the first section A.
I use a small amount of sustain pedal for the very last flourish, depressing it for the last two notes of measure 126 and releasing it on the next staccato octaves. This gives a nice feeling of a final roar.