The story of Debussy’s ‘Jeux’ #Magazine_SubscriptionJanuary 12, 2019
It is doubtful that any theatre has experienced a more remarkable few weeks than the newly opened Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, Paris in May 1913.
It was the scene on 29 May of the most notorious premiere of them all: Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring , the hoopla surrounding which overshadowed two rather different works.
The first Parisian performance of Fauré’s sublime only opera, Pénélope , was given on 10 May, two days before the composer’s 68th birthday.
This ‘ poème dansé ’ has come to be seen as equally important as the Rite in its own way, but being eclipsed by the reception of Stravinsky’s tour de force was just one factor among many working against Jeux getting a good start.
It took the best part of 40 years for the significance of Jeux to be recognised.
While Stravinsky’s advances grab you by the throat, and Schoenberg’s expressionist works scream their angst, Jeux is understated and suffused with light.
Rather than using form for unity and integration, Debussy’s score explores discontinuity, with more than 60 changes of tempo, motifs in constant flux and ever-changing orchestral colours – and yet there is an almost invisible coherence.
One month later, Debussy was persuaded to write a new work for the Ballets Russes.
In Nijinsky’s defense, it is worth remembering that he did not hear the orchestral score until late in the day.
The premiere of Jeux provoked no riot, no scandal of the sort that accompanied Nijinsky’s choreography for Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune, and certainly not bouquets and plaudits.
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