Games for Three


A minimalist, modern rendering by Léon Bakst for Costume Study for Jeux. Watercolor, graphite and black chalk on laid paper. Credit: National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.

 

Tamara Karsavina, Vaslav Nijinsky and Ludmilla Schollar in Jeux

 

Jeux (Games) is the last work for orchestra written by Claude Debussy. Described as a “poème dansé” (literally a “danced poem”), it was originally intended to accompany a ballet and was written for the Ballets Russes of Sergei Diaghilev to choreography by Vaslav Nijinsky.

Jeux premiered on 15 May 1913 at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, Paris, conducted by Pierre Monteux. The work was not well received and was soon eclipsed by Igor Stravinsky‘s The Rite of Spring, which was premiered two weeks later by Diaghilev’s company.

According to Nijinsky’s Diaries, made during the weeks before his psychological breakdown, Diaghilev intended the music to describe a homosexual encounter between three young men, and Nijinsky wanted to include an airplane crash. The final version of the story involved a man, two girls, and a game of tennis. The scenario was described to the audience at the premiere as follows:

“The scene is a garden at dusk; a tennis ball has been lost; a boy and two girls are searching for it. The artificial light of the large electric lamps shedding fantastic rays about them suggests the idea of childish games: they play hide and seek, they try to catch one another, they quarrel, they sulk without cause. The night is warm, the sky is bathed in pale light; they embrace. But the spell is broken by another tennis ball thrown in mischievously by an unknown hand. Surprised and alarmed, the boy and girls disappear into the nocturnal depths of the garden.”

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