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Composed: 1912-1913
Length: c. 17 minutes
Orchestration: 2 piccolos, 2 flutes, 3 oboes, English horn, 3 clarinets, bass clarinet, 3 bassoons, contrabassoon), 4 horns, 4 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (cymbals, tambourine, triangle, xylophone), 2 harps, celesta, and strings
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: January 23, 1969, Pierre Boulez conducting

Jeux is probably the least known, least performed, and least understood of Debussy’s orchestral works. There are several reasons for the semi-obscurity of this poème dansé among the concert-going public. For one, Jeux had the misfortune of being premiered at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris on May 15, 1913, as the opening of the Ballets Russes season, just less than two weeks prior to the notorious premiere of Stravinsky’s Le sacre du printemps on May 29. For another, the actual dance (choreographed by Nijinsky) never evoked a positive reaction from the audience; even the ballet revivals in 1920 and 1923 were greeted with a mixed response at best.

So what were the origins of this problematic work? Sheer necessity, and a business luncheon: years of illness and debt had put Debussy in a place of perpetual penury. He had been diagnosed with cancer as early as 1909, and his second wife (the singer Emma Bardac) had been disinherited upon their marriage. The reclusive Debussy was forced to submit to the labors of conducting, to which he was not well suited, and succumb to commissions for which he had little if any enthusiasm. Enter Serge Diaghilev and his Ballets Russes. Debussy was still reeling from their collaboration on a ballet version of L’après-midi d’un faune, based on choreography by Nijinsky that utilized the Dalcrozean method of Eurhythmics, which evoked a scandal and which Debussy found “ugly” if not repulsive. So it was with some trepidation that Debussy accepted a commission from Diaghilev for a new ballet that was discussed over lunch.

Nijinsky’s original scenario was described by Jacques-Emile Blanche, the set painter: “There should be no corps de ballet, no ensembles, no variations… only boys and girls in flannels and rhythmic movements… a game of tennis was to be interrupted by the crashing of an airplane.” Debussy found this absurd, but Diaghilev doubled his fee (10,000 gold francs), and removed the airplane. The obvious novelty of this scenario is that it was taken from modern life rather than myth or folk tales, those subjects normally associated with classical French ballet. Thus the ballet of the ‘plastic vindication of the man of 1913’ came to be.

Here then, is the scenario of Jeux:

The scene is a garden at dusk; a tennis ball has been lost; a young man and two girls are searching for it. The artificial light of the large electric lamps suggests the idea of childish play: they play hide and seek, they quarrel. The night is warm, the sky is bathed in a pale light; they embrace. This spell is broken when another tennis ball mysteriously appears. Surprised and alarmed, the young man and the girls disappear into the nocturnal depths of the garden.

Jeux has been described as a set of variations and / or a rondo. There are no full-blown melodies in a Romantic sense; the mercurial form of Jeux is rendered through seeming atomic particles that swirl in waves of color articulating a kinetic energy that attracts the fragmented melodic cells into cohesive blocks of sound. The overall structure is one of ebb and flow and unpredictable sequences of musical events. In spite of his distaste for the scenario and choreography, and his ill health, Debussy poured into Jeux his full knowledge of instrumental color, formal invention, and, above all, his deep reverence for the mystery of creation.

Steve Lacoste is Archivist for the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association.