Debussy wrote his last ballet and last orchestral work, Jeux, (or Games for Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballet Russe, with Vaslav Nijinsky as choreographer and lead dancer. The first performance puzzled its audience, and as it took place only two weeks before the tumultuous premiere of Stravinsky’s Le sacre du printemps, it was nearly forgotten in the uproar.
On closer inspection, Jeux was every bit as revolutionary and forward-looking as Sacre and even more daring harmonically. Debussy’s most nearly atonal work, Jeux‘s formal structure depends to an unprecedented degree on orchestral color and texture rather than pitch relationships.
In this way, it points in the direction of Anton Webern’s pointillism, to the search for new sonorities from electronic instruments, and through the teaching of Olivier Messiaen, to the techniques developed by postwar composers like Karlheinz Stockhausen and Pierre Boulez.
The story and choreography also refused to conform to any previous expectations, and it remains unclear whether the audience found the music or the ballet the more problematical.
In Nijinsky’s simple plot, boy loses tennis ball, finds two girls, forgets about the ball, and eventually wins both girls. By the end of the ballet, the three of them are kissing passionately. He made no room for fantasies, tutus and coronets, ensembles, or anything the audience might have expected to see–nothing but three people in tennis outfits.
(And in 1913, men’s tennis outfits were baggy long-sleeved shirts and flannel slacks. Women wore long-sleeved ankle-length dresses with petticoats. It is difficult to imagine anyone successfully either dancing or playing tennis dressed that way.)
Some people found the ballet a refreshing change. Others, apparently including Debussy himself, found it disconcerting. Debussy was so annoyed with what he saw that he left the theater to smoke a cigarette.
Even without the ballet, the music bewildered audiences. To some extent, it continues to do so. Unlike anything else he ever wrote, listeners continue to find Jeux Debussy’s most difficult work. With its predominantly scherzando mood, it continues to play games with audience’s expectations and requires repeated hearing to understand.