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?
© Caroline Potter