The story of... Debussy’s 'Jeux'

Christopher Dingle tells the story of a musically understated ballet that was
to prove a genuine game-changer

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It is doubtful that any theatre has experienced a more remarkable few weeks than the newly opened Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, Paris in May 1913. It was the scene on 29 May of the most notorious premiere of them all: Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, the hoopla surrounding which overshadowed two rather different works.

The first Parisian performance of Fauré’s sublime only opera, Pénélope, was given on 10 May, two days before the composer’s 68th birthday. Five days later, Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes unveiled a work with what turned out to be the last completed orchestral music by Debussy: Jeux. This ‘poème dansé’ has come to be seen as equally important as the Rite in its own way, but being eclipsed by the reception of Stravinsky’s tour de force was just one factor among many working against Jeux getting a good start.

It took the best part of 40 years for the significance of Jeux to be recognised. While Stravinsky’s advances grab you by the throat, and Schoenberg’s expressionist works scream their angst, Jeux is understated and suffused with light. It’s chromatic, yet never harsh; rhythmically complex, yet fleet-footed and graceful. Analysing it is like trying to capture wisps of mist.

What Debussy called the ‘beautiful nightmare’ of Stravinsky’s Rite would never have been possible without the harmonic freedom of the Frenchman’s earlier works. But in realising Debussy’s orchestral ideal, Jeux had lessons for the radical post-war generation of composers in its fluidity of form. Rather than using form for unity and integration, Debussy’s score explores discontinuity, with more than 60 changes of tempo, motifs in constant flux and ever-changing orchestral colours – and yet there is an almost invisible coherence.

Like Pinocchio, Jeux quietly unlocked the door to the way that later composers put their music together like a collage. This can be heard in Messiaen’s mature works, while Stockhausen praised Jeux as the crucial step towards the ‘moment form’ that underpinned many of his pieces, a sentiment echoed by Ligeti. As Boulez put it, ‘the general organisation of [Jeux] is as changeable instant by instant as it is homogeneous in development’.

The title mirrors the ambiguities of the scenario, in which a boy and two girls are searching for a tennis ball, but embark on other games, firstly childish, then more amorous. Boulez has described Jeux as ‘The Afternoon of a faun in sports clothes’, reflecting the musical affinity Jeux has with Debussy’s early masterpiece and the ballet’s echoes of the nymphs chasing the faun in Vaslav Nijinsky’s choreography for Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune, produced in May 1912. One month later, Debussy was persuaded to write a new work for the Ballets Russes. He was initially reluctant, a telegram to Diaghilev stating bluntly ‘Subject ballet Jeux idiotic, not interested’, but a doubling of the fee (and the shelving of Nijinsky’s idea for a plane crash near the end) evidently prompted a change of heart.

Once committed, Debussy wrote the initial draft of Jeux at uncommon speed, in about a month from July to August 1912, telling André Caplet that he needed ‘to find an orchestra “without feet” for this music’. Debussy refused to let Diaghilev and Nijinsky hear his work in progress, ‘not wishing these barbarians to poke their noses into my experiments in personal chemistry!’ He later came to view his caution as well-founded, telling Gabriel Pierné that Nijinsky ‘with his cruel and barbarous choreography… trampled my poor rhythms underfoot like weed’.

In Nijinsky’s defense, it is worth remembering that he did not hear the orchestral score until late in the day. While the piano duet version of the Rite gives a good flavour of this most percussive of ballets, Jeux on piano is far removed from Debussy’s diaphanous orchestral textures. Matters were not helped by the frantic preparations for the Rite swallowing up rehearsal time. To compound it all, one of the three dancers for Jeux, Nijinsky’s sister Bronislava, discovered she was pregnant just before the premiere.

The premiere of Jeux provoked no riot, no scandal of the sort that accompanied Nijinsky’s choreography for Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune, and certainly not bouquets and plaudits. Rather, there was bemusement about the dancing, while the music seemed barely to be noticed at all. Now, such indifference has been replaced by recognition of a work that epitomises the word sublime. Listening to Jeux, as the hesitant opening bars are interrupted by those indescribable chords opening a door to another universe, how did those sitting in the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées nearly a century ago fail to realise that Debussy’s games were very special indeed? 

 

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