If the scandalous premiere of Stravinsky's Le Sacre de Printemps on the stage of the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées on May 29th 1913 can be regarded as a musical bomb shell, Debussy's work Jeux premiered on the same stage only two weeks previously can perhaps be described as being more of a time bomb. And although Debussy's ballet could not escape from the shadow cast by Stravinsky's work over new music, the avant-garde composers of the 1950s, Boulez and his colleagues, came to regard it as the most important work of the first half of the 20th century. Boulez believed he could see in Jeux the realisation of “new musical forms, which renew themselves from one moment to the next, are similarly flexible and demand a lightening quick receptive strategy from the listener”.
The ballet, more accurately a “dance poem” was commissioned by the Diagilev's legendary Ballet Rousse. This was not Diagilev's first encounter with Debussy: a year earlier, he had selected Debussy Prélude ŕ l'aprčs-midi d'un faune, which had then been popular for twenty years, for the premiere of a choreography by Vaclav Nijinsky, who was attracting no few scandals himself. Although many criticised Nijinsky's provocative and highly erotic dance movements employed in l'aprčs-midi d'un faune, Diagilev immediately decided to commission an original work from Debussy. Nijinsky came up with a rather surprising concept for a ballet: two men and a woman are playing tennis at dusk, when one of their balls runs off the court. They chase after it, flirt and pursue one another, kiss and finally vanish in the obscurity of the park.
This latest fashion of the era, tennis as a ballet subject, was far removed from the Ballet Rouse's earlier productions which drew on Antique mythology and pagan rites: Diagilev now wanted to place “modern man” on the stage. Debussy reacted to Diagilev's ideas in a telegram, composed in his usual laconic style: “The story is nonsense. I'm not interested.” When Diagilev and Nijinsky combined to convince Debussy of the importance of the work and its hidden possibilities, and not least because Diagilev offered Debussy double the original fee, the French composer finally consented and accepted the commission.
The work was ready by Autumn 1912, and Debussy scored it the following spring in a single month. Although it was not a great success, it was performed the following year on the concert stage without dancers. On March 1st 1914, the audience of the Concert Colonne received the following concert notes, to which presumably Debussy himself gave his blessing:
“After a very slow, dreamlike and quiet introduction of a few bars, in which a B played by violins acts as a background to various inversions of a chord comprising of all the notes of a whole note scale, a scherzando motif suddenly emerges in 3/8 time, which is interrupted by the returning introduction accompanied by murmuring deep strings. The scherzando begins again with a second motif, and then the ballet action begins: a ball rolls onto the stage. A young man in tennis clothes arrives, with racket held high: he steals across the stage and then vanishes. Two frightened and curious girls appear, as though they were seeking some concealed place where they can unburden their secrets. They began to dance. Suddenly they stop, hearing the rustling of the tree bows. We see the young man who has observed the girl's movements from behind the branches. The girls run way but the boy tenderly brings them back and begins to dance with one of them – and even receives a kiss from her. The other girl launches into an ironic, mocking 2/4 dance as a sign of jealousy or perhaps revenge, which succeeds in distracting the attention of the boy. The boy invites the girl to waltz, who initially is unable to prevent herself from being led, but gradually gives herself over to the magic of the dance. The first girl, now alone, makes to leave but she is pleasantly brought into the dance, and this leads to a joint movement which culminates in an ecstasy which is disrupted by another lost tennis ball: the three young people run from the stage. The introductory chords return, a few notes leading to nothing are heard – and it ends.”
Debussy, who was not particularly enthralled with Nijinsky's art, probably did not mind overly that his work was soon forgotten by the world of ballet but lived on in the world of absolute music. As we know from a letter written during its composition, Debussy was not really thinking in terms of dramatic situations but rather in musical categories and possibilities. He thus wrote to a friend a few days after completing Jeux: “I had to invent an orchestral sonority which had 'no legs'. Don't think of an ensemble which is just made up of amputees! No! I am thinking of an orchestral colour which seems to be illuminated from behind, marvellous examples of which can be found in Parsifal.” The term “legless” sonority is rather obscure, perhaps Debussy meant a kind of airy sonority, while the orchestral sound “illuminated from behind” refers to a transparency of the melodic style of writing in which the contrast between melody and accompaniment is practically terminated. There is no question that the score of Jeux is one of the most remarkable and complex of 20th century works, and is it no surprise that it has become one of Debussy's most important works for those interested in contemporary music.