Author Topic: Debussy’s Jeux  (Read 14 times)

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Offline Mirror Image

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Debussy’s Jeux
« on: Today at 05:03:06 AM »
Debussy’s Jeux

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?

[Article taken from]


Jeux, Debussy’s only work composed for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, was not the first orchestral piece of his to appear on the celebrated company’s programmes. In 1912 Nijinsky had choreographed Debussy’s Prélude à L’après-midi d’un faune (1892-4), giving it a scandalous concluding scene in which the frustrated faun masturbates with a nymph’s discarded scarf. The composer was reportedly not amused by this explicit visualization of his Mallarmé-inspired work.

Debussy described Jeux as a ‘poème dansé’, though its poetry resides in the music rather than the text. Like Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé, it is proof that the most marvellous ballet music can be composed to the most flimsy scenario. The ‘games’ of the title are a desultory tennis match and playful flirtation à trois. The scenario opens: ‘The scene is a garden at dusk; a tennis ball has been lost; a boy and two girls are searching for it. The artificial light of the large electric lamps shedding fantastic rays about them suggests the idea of childish games: they play hide and seek, they try to catch one another, they quarrel, they sulk without cause. The night is warm, the sky is bathed in pale light; they embrace.’

Jeux premiered on 15 May 1913 at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, two weeks before the cataclysm that was Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, which completely overshadowed Debussy’s ballet. It was choreographed by Vaslav Nijinsky, who also danced the male character, joined by two of the company’s leading female dancers, Tamara Karsavina and Ludmilla Schollar.

The tennis theme puzzled contemporary critics, most notably Debussy’s friend Erik Satie, to whom a review in Revue musicale S.I.M. (15 June 1913) is attributed: ‘Summer sports: Several readers have asked for the rules of Russian tennis, a game which will surely be all the rage this season in chateaux. The rules can be summarised thus: the game is played at night, under baskets of flowers lit by electric arc lights; three players are involved; there is no net; the ball is replaced by a football; the use of a racquet is forbidden. In a trench dug at the edge of the playing surface, an orchestra, which accompanies the players, is hidden.’

The theme of three extends to the music, much of which is a waltz subjected to time stretching and compressing. Musical ideas are alluded to, though never repeated precisely; these nocturnal goings-on are, like the wanderings of Mallarmé and Debussy’s faun, seemingly without purpose, on the slippery border between dream and reality. The fleeting nature of the material is matched by Debussy’s orchestral imagination: colours are constantly shifting in a play of timbres which offers an additional meaning to the title. Debussy’s desire to create an orchestra ‘without feet’ was never more successfully realised; just as dancers seek to transcend the bounds of gravity, Debussy wanted to craft a floating orchestra.

As if to bring us back down to earth, the orchestral score notes precisely when and where a new tennis ball lands on the playing surface (thrown by ‘an unknown hand’, according to the scenario). The first initiates the disappearance of the surprised players into ‘the nocturnal depths of the garden’ and the second heralds the return of the opening music, though it is orchestrated differently. Soon after this varied reprise, the music suddenly ends, as if to say: what was that about?

[Article taken from Philharmonia Orchestra’s website]


As you have doubtless heard by now, we are coming up on the 100th anniversary of the first performance of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring. The groundwork of that infamously riotous premiere was laid by the much less notorious debut of a ballet that was in many ways more revolutionary. Diaghilev's Ballets Russes premiered Vaslav Nijinsky's choreography of the short ballet Jeux at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées on May 15, 1913, at which Pierre Monteux was also the conductor of Debussy's startling score. It would be the last orchestral score that Debussy completed before his death in 1918, and many writers have commented on its originality and daring, not least Pierre Boulez, who saw in it a foreshadowing of later developments in serialism.

As Vaslav Nijinsky recounted in some detail in his diary, Diaghilev's original idea for the ballet was a scenario about a homosexual encounter involving three men. In recognition of the difficulty such a story would have posed, even for the audience of the Ballets Russes, Nijinsky altered the story instead to an erotic meeting of a young man, danced by Nijinsky himself (at one point, to underscore the ambiguity of the situation, he planned to dance the role en pointe in women's ballet shoes), and two young women. To emphasize the playful nature of these events -- the title means "Play" or "Games" -- the action unfolded during a tennis match on a dusk-darkened court.

Somewhat incredibly, we have reviewed the piece live only once in the history of Ionarts, at a concert by the San Francisco Symphony in 2006. The orchestration of Jeux is among Debussy's most vivid, with glistening string divisi and knotted winds -- the whole-tone chord clusters in the prelude, which return more than once in the score, are one of many unforgettable mottos. Myriam Chimènes, who edited the score of Jeux for the Debussy Edition Critique, wrote about the timbres in the score at length for an article in Debussy Studies. She quotes Debussy writing to Andre Caplet about the score: "How was I able to forget the troubles of this world and write music which is almost cheerful, and alive with quaint gestures?" He also described the sort of orchestration he was looking for (he completed the piano score first, as was his usual practice): "I'm thinking of that orchestral color which seems to be lit from behind, of which there are such wonderful examples in Parsifal."

Debussy uses the brass -- 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, and tuba -- sparingly, at big climaxes or with mutes. The woodwind section gets more work, especially at the big climaxes, often the only points where the full complement plays (2 piccolos, 2 flutes, 3 oboes, English horn, 3 clarinets, bass clarinet, and 3 bassoons). There is even a part for (presumably contrabass) sarrusophone, which does not come in until well into the score (p. 69, after rehearsal 47) and is now mostly played, I think, on contrabassoon. The percussion (timpani, triangle, tambourine, xylophone, and cymbals) is often combined evocatively with the sounds of celesta and two harps.

Many recordings of Jeux have been in my ears, and I like many of them, including Boulez (Cleveland Orchestra, DG), Maazel (Vienna Philharmonic, RCA), the languorous Charles Dutoit (Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal, Decca), and the slightly nervous Christian Thielemann (Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, live in 2002). My favorite at the moment, however, is a recent recording by Jun Märkl and the Orchestre National de Lyon, in the first volume of their complete recording of Debussy's orchestral works. The sound is beautifully detailed and captures a vividly nuanced reading, with all of Debussy's many tempo changes -- one every two bars, as one wag once jokingly put it -- given a fluidity like few others. While some hastier performances can come in under 19 and even under 18 minutes, Märkl's luxurious pacing extends out to 19:25, while still keeping the "dance" episodes -- playful evocations of the waltz and other forms -- energized.

Jeux is thought to be the first ballet ever danced in contemporary dress, with the costumes by Léon Bakst based on early 20th-century tennis outfits. You can watch an attempted reconstruction of Nijinsky's choreography, via the invaluable YouTube: Part 1 / Part 2 / Part 3. I had hopes for a production of the ballet this year for the anniversary, but it has not happened yet -- the Washington Ballet's last performance of Jeux was over 20 years ago. For further reading, Richard Buckle's Nijinsky: A Life of Genius and Madness brings together some newspaper pieces from around the time of the premiere, including reviews and an interesting interview that Nijinsky gave to Gil Blas about the piece. In a chapter ("L'Adorable Arabesque") in her book Mallarmé and Debussy: Unheard Music, Unseen Text, Elizabeth McCombie has written a sophisticated comparison of Debussy's score for Jeux to Stéphane Mallarmé's disruptive poem Un coup de dés, in which the poet claimed he was after something like the effect of words given timing like "music heard in concert.”

[Article taken from]


Debussy’s Jeux is not only one of the most beautiful orchestral works I’ve ever heard, but it is also one of the most mysterious pieces of music created in the early 20th Century. Of course, Stravinsky’s Le sacre du printemps would go on to become a masterpiece not long after Jeux was premiered by the Ballet Russes and be cemented into the short list of landmark works from the 20th Century. But as much as I love Le sacre (and I do love it a lot), there is something even more unsettling about Jeux. The music never truly finds its own footing --- it’s constantly changing, morphing into one phrase to another with an almost breathlessness that doesn’t really allow the listener to understand what had just happened. I find it utterly beguiling from start to finish. What do you believe this music was trying to achieve? What was on Debussy’s mind during the conception of this work? These are questions I’ve asked myself and have tried to find with no avail, but this description of the ballet’s plot leaves one scratching their head:

”The scene is a garden at dusk; a tennis ball has been lost; a boy and two girls are searching for it. The artificial light of the large electric lamps shedding fantastic rays about them suggests the idea of childish games: they play hide and seek, they try to catch one another, they quarrel, they sulk without cause. The night is warm, the sky is bathed in pale light; they embrace. But the spell is broken by another tennis ball thrown in mischievously by an unknown hand. Surprised and alarmed, the boy and girls disappear into the nocturnal depths of the garden.” - Introduction of the ballet at its’ 1913 premiere

Okay, now I’m truly confused. ;D Anyway, I just wanted to start a thread on this work because I do feel it’s an important work not only in Debussy’s incredible oeuvre, but it also remains one of the milestones in 20th Century orchestral music, IMHO. What’s your take on all of this? Love the work? Hate the work? Please discuss.
« Last Edit: Today at 05:59:11 AM by Mirror Image »
“Works of art make rules; rules do not make works of art.” - Claude Debussy