Douze études

Claude Debussy

Douze études

L136, CD143

About this work

Debussy's ballet for children or marionettes, La boîte à joujoux, is a late work in a comparatively uncomplicated manner that is often criticized as a falling away of the composer's powers. In truth, Debussy knew exactly what he was doing, and it is a mistake to regard as simplistic music that is merely uncomplicated in its method of expression.

The scenario, conceived by children's book illustrator André Hellé, involved life, love, and conflict in a toybox, rather than the psychosexual politics of the tennis court. For this work, which was not initially intended for adult dancers, Debussy saw a rare opportunity to write innocence into his music. Yet it's a wily innocence; the score includes many witty references -- imitations of music-box tunes, parodies of opera and folk melodies (including Il Pleut, bergère and a chorus from Gounod's Faust), plus a reference to his own Golliwog's Cakewalk. The textures are spare and the original thematic content seems rather stripped down, but this was Debussy's intention, not the result of artistic decline.

Debussy wrote the piano score from July to October 1913, but the war put off preparations for performance, and ultimately Debussy left the orchestration to André Caplet, who retained a prominent (but not concertante) piano part in his instrumentation. The wispy Prelude hints at various things, including a music-box tune, without quite establishing any full melodies. There is a substantial suggestion of a march, though, which will come to be associated with one of the three main characters, a Toy Soldier.

The first tableau cycles through similar material and, like the rest of the score, is obviously intended to reflect moment-to-moment changes in action rather than conform to conventional patterns of development. Here are introduced the themes of the characters: the aforementioned march for the soldier, a "sweet and gracious" waltz for the pretty doll, and an animated and irregular, even boisterous, motif for the doll's initial love interest, Pulchinello. Here Debussy also works in an extended reference to Golliwog's Cakewalk, along with several other bumptious fragments, but the music tends to proceed with low volume and lean scoring. In the course of the four tableaux and epilogue, the music underscores the conflict between the Soldier and Pulchinello, accompanies a battle in which the Soldier is wounded, then follows the action as the doll nurses him back to health and falls in love with him, whereupon they marry and begin overpopulating the toybox.