About this work
Jeux is a ballet. The story for the work was suggested by the Russian dancer and choreographer Vladimir Nijinsky, famous for his association with Igor Stravinsky, Serge Diaghilev, and the Ballet Russes. Nijinsky had danced in Debussy's L'après midi d'une faune in 1912, and apparently felt some affinity with Debussy and his music. Debussy rejected Nijinsky's original scenario, which included a game of tennis and a crashing airplane; instead, Debussy proposed a scenario in which two women and a man become involved in a love triangle while searching for a lost tennis ball one evening. Premiered in 1913 by the Ballets Russes, the ballet is set at a tennis court, where a man happens upon two women. The man turns on the charm, and flirts with one until he gets a kiss, making the other jealous. The second girl then dances with the man, while the first leaves. They join together at the end, and the ballet ends with a tennis ball rolling across the stage, edging the trio offstage.
The ballet has been criticized for its inaccessibility, and indeed it is an intimidating, complicated work. Absent from the work are repeating themes, clear tonal centers, and simple functional harmonies, making the work somewhat reminiscent of Arnold Schoenberg's atonal modernist opera of 1909, Erwartung, in which "themes" are heard only once, and motivic material is abandoned almost immediately after it is heard. Jeux contains a number of techniques carried over from Debussy's earlier opera Pelléas et Mélisande -- most notably what Arthur Denk calls "diatonic saturation," a technique which exhausts all of the diatonic pitches in embellishing a single chord. The ballet also contains moments of bitonality, in the form of superimposed contrasting diatonic sonorities, and moments of near-atonality. However, there is ultimately a subtle overarching tonal framework (using modal, pentatonic, major, and minor tonalities) connecting the various episodes of the work.
Jeux was premiered just two weeks before Stravinsky's then scandalous Le sacre du printemps, and Debussy was deeply impressed by Le sacre. There are a number of similarities between the two ballets, most notably the adventurous harmonies that stretch the limits of tonality. Debussy's ballet marks a turning point in his career, perhaps even a moment of crisis, and ultimately it would be Stravinsky whose influence would push Debussy in a new musical direction.