The Games of Jeux: On Debussy's Intrigue of Motive, Narrative and Proportion


John MacKay

Jeux's harmonic/motivic and proportional mosaic has long been a fascination, not only in the mid-century European avant-garde but also, more recently, in the evolving study of Debussy's musical language. This particular analysis benefits from the clarity of Debussy's piano reduction of 1912 and its co-ordination of the full scenario of the ballet with the music (1) (an English translation is given in Figure 1). This has facilitated a more exact view of the motivic narrative of the work as well as useful orientations to issues of proportion and orchestration proposed by Roy Howat and Myriam Chimènes (2) and an elucidation of the work's "subtle links" as so enticingly described by the composer. (3)

The genesis of the work which was apparently complete in the form of a short score particelle as early as August of 1911. The particelle was altered shortly thereafter in a piano reduction, adding a few measures in the initial confrontations between the young man and two girls (mm. 204 - 212 of the final version) and providing a much different and more climactic outgrowth before the brief, final-page epilogue of opening ideas. Following a meeting with Diaghilev, the ending of the piano reduction was further expanded and intensified to the exhilarating and superbly crafted climax which we now know. It is from this altered piano reduction (with some orchestrational details from the particelle) the orchestral score was completed much later in March of 1912. As the disappointing première in May was all the more raucously overshadowed a short couple of weeks later by that of the Rite of Spring, the work became neglected, seemingly even forgotten until after the Second World War and rarely again performed as a ballet. Due to the risqué nature of the scenario and the scandal which had very recently arisen from Nijinsky's choreography of L'après midi d'un faune, Jeux was also a score which Debussy was not anxious to write and yet it was a work which, to his own surprise, flowed effortlessly from his pen and which seems even to have augured the experimental attitudes of his late compositions.


m. 47 The curtain rises on the empty park.

70 A tennis ball falls on the scene

74 A young man in tennis attire, raised racquet crosses the scene leaping .... then he disappears

84 From the back left two girls appear, timid and curious

103 For a moment they seem to be just looking for a place to tell secrets.

138 One of the girls dances alone.

157 The other girl dances in turn.

192 The girls stop, interrupted by the sound of moving leaves ...

At the back left, the young man is seen who seems to be hiding ...he follows their movements through the branches m 196

207 He stops in front of them ....

214 They first want to flee ... but he brings them back gently (m. 217) ... and makes them a new invitation (m. 220) ...

224 He begins to dance ....

242 .....the first girl runs toward him ... they dance together m. 245

255 He asks for a kiss .... she escapes (m. 256) ... a new request (m. 257) .... she escapes (m. 258) ... and consentingly rejoins him m. 262

284 Spite and mock jealousy in the second girl m. 284

290 The two others remain in their romantic ecstasy

309 Ironic and ridiculing dance of the second girl

331 The young man follows this dance at first in curiosity, then taking a particular interest, he soon abandons the first girl unable to resist the desire to dance with the other

356 "This is how we will dance." (m. 305) The second girls repeats the same figure in a mocking way. (m. 342) "Don't make fun of me!" (m. 351) They dance together.......

366 Their dance becomes more tender.

376 The girls escapes and hides behind a clump of trees.

386 Disappearing for a moment, they return almost immediately, the young man pursuing the girl.

395 The two dance again.

429 Carried away in their dance, they don't notice the attitude, at first worried then upset of the first girl who, holding her head in her hands wants to run away. Her friend tries in vain to restrain her (m.432) .... she won't hear anything m. 433

452 The second girl manages to take her in her arms.

455 However, the young man intervenes, gently separating their heads. So they look at the beauty of the night around them, the joy of the light, everything tells them to abandon everything to their fantasy. m. 461

535 The three dance together from here on.

551 Becoming little by little more excited, ever more passionate

593 Always very intense

679 The young man, in a passionate gesture, brings their three heads together .... and a triple kiss binds them in ecstasy

689 A tennis ball falls at their feet ... surprised and frightened, they jump to safety disappearing into the depths of the nocturnal park.

Figure 1: Scenario from Piano Reduction of Jeux



The different sketch versions of Jeux furnish an interesting test case for the issue of whether proportion was intuitive or calculated at this stage of Debussy's musical language. The design of Jeux falls comfortably (although by no means necessarily) into five sections: a prelude and introduction of the scene and characters (mm. 1- 137), the first tentative dancing by the two girls followed by impulsive confrontation with the young man (mm. 138-223), the dances with the young man separately with the first girl then the second girl (mm. 224 - 428), an "interlude" in which the second girls consoles the neglect first girl (4) (mm. 429 - 454) and the final culmination of the work in which all dance at once and eventually together (mm. 455 - 709). In the different sketches expansions were made following m. 602 of the particelle (m. 610 of the final score version with the eight measures added earlier) and m. 658 in the sketch of the piano reduction (also m. 658 in the final score version). Figure 2 summarizes this progressive lengthening of the last section in relation to the other parts of the work. What eventually became the seventy-seven measures from m. 611 to m. 688 in the final version of the score were passages of 39 measures respectively in the particelle (see Appendix A) and 69 measures in the original version of the piano reduction (see Appendix B). The final version of the piano reduction replaces the 20 measures before m. 688 of the final version with the 30 measures from m. 659 to 688 in the final version (adding 10 measures). Note the eventual lengthening of the entire composition from 651 measures in the particelle to 698 in the unmodified piano reduction to 708 after meeting with Diaghilev and finally 709 in the final orchestral score (one measure was added at rehearsal number 38). (5)


Figure 2: Comparison of Large-Scale Proportional Structure of particelle, Original Version of

Piano Reduction and Orchestral Score/Altered Version of Piano Reduction(6)

In terms of the proportional climax in m. 429 (the first girl's outbreak at the height of the dance of the young man with the second girl) the successive additions to accommodate the scenario actually created a perfect Golden Section over the 698 measures of the unaltered piano reduction (.6146) which was only slightly distorted (.605) over the 709 measures of the final version. (7) A more subtle but significant and virtually exact Golden Section (.6145) is also to be found from the beginning to the m. 429 climax at m. 264 where the first girl (after her hesitations) finally consents to a kiss from the young man. Both moments involve the first girl's repeated-note melismas - "languid" (alanagui) at m. 264 and tormented at the climax in m. 429. While the only Golden Section to closely emerge between any of the five sections in succession is between the first and second (137/224 = .612), other significant Golden Sections arise within the self-contained first and final sections of the work. In the first (mm. 1 - 137) it is inscribed with the entrance at m. 84 of the two girls (.613). In the final part, (mm. 456 - 709) of the work a Golden Section obtains (.613) at m. 611 at the en animant progressivement which is the beginning of the final and climactic chain of the work. (8) Certain near-Golden Section proportions gain prominence from the clarity and definition of their climactic gestures. The drop of the tennis ball in m. 70 which clearly divides the segment from mm. 47 - 84 (an approximate GS at .621) functions this way, as does the return of the central motive from this section at m.118 in the following section (mm. 85-137, another approximate GS at .635). Similarly the incisive C#s in m. 202 amid the disjointed alternations surrounding the young man's surprise of the two girls divides this clear subsection (mm. 168 - 223) of the second larger part of the work (mm. 138 - 223) into a near exact GS (.618) and a Fibonacci pair of 34:55 - a relationship which only arises with the 10 measures inserted into the particelle.

In the third section of the piece, the dances of the first and then the second girl with the young man, the role of the Golden Section gestures appears to be displaced by other organizational devices. Duplication, which pervades Debussy's mosaic syntax, emerge at higher levels in the initial appearance of the girls upon the scene (mm. 84 -92-99), and in their dancing in turn (mm.138 - 157 - 167). A large duplication (mm.224-245-263) frames the initial dances of the young man and the first girl and her coy refusals before kissing him (see the schematic subsections indicated in Figure 2) and a further, more developed duplication comprises the subsequent (B) section of their dance (plus alangui, mm. 264-283). The symmetrical stability of these passages clearly provides relief from the various lower level Golden Section curves at the same time that they fill out the higher-level proportional schemes. Indeed, what is remarkable about the formal dynamic of Jeux, from the symmetries, "rhythms" and shifting asymmetries of its mosaic design to its higher-level structures and motions, is the integration of its great variety of motivic ideas and processes in relation to the unfolding scenario.


The Motivic Narrative

Prelude and Introduction mm. 1 - 137

The affective simplicity of the scenario (confrontation, invitation, hesitation etc.) unfolds in the enveloping shades of the park, and the shifting depths, colors and layerings of Debussy's score. Although the composer reveals little of his interpretation of the scenario, his comment for the press of a "mysterious nocturnal landscape with that slightly evil je ne sais quoi that always accompanies twilight" (9) suggest an aloof supernatural which appears to be an underlying player in the music and the narrative of the ballet. The prelude (Debussy's term) sets a delicately-hued constellation of intervallic tensions (see Example 1, mm. 1-8) against clear upper-register B naturals and then an uncannily descending whole-tone chord stream in the strings. In the shift to the main tempo, the repeated-tone figure develops quickly through light cymbal flashes and bright/hollow echoings of the xylophone but cuts suddenly to reveal its B natural now in the low register with the returning of the chord stream, eerily ornamented by a seeming resonance of Dukas' Sorcerer's Apprentice (Example 2).


The brief "prelude" exposes a richness of essential motivic entities and relationships: the initial transposition of the rising chromatic steps of "x1"to Fx, G# A, the skipping three-note chromatic descent retracing the chromatic steps of "x1"(D-C#- C, however with D# instead of D) against a mysterious unfolding of a low-register E (D#) major triad. The incisive C#/D# dyad in m.15 (a clear transformation of the C#-D natural of the "x constellation") becomes an integral pitch and intervallic reference throughout the work, and the alternation of the C natural of the repeated-tone motive in mm. 17-18 with C# reflects the C natural/C# tensions of the "x constellation".

Echoing the sinewy figures in the strings of mm. 43-46 quick reflections of "x1" downward from G to E# and upward to C# from the original B natural, beckon the rise of the curtain and a new scalic "alpha" (or ) motive (10) (Example 3) in the clarinet. It is quickly placed in a dialectic alternation with the chromatically skipping descent in thirds beginning (Example 4) on the G natural and descending to the D# of the beginning of the "alpha" motive - all sustained above a middle C# modal tonic pedal in the violas. The complementary but opposite nature of these motives is significant as they reflect larger collections of chromatic as opposed to scalic motions throughout the work. Their focused and repeated combination here intensifies and culminates in a complete chromatic descent through the octave via the skipping chromatic motive to the C-major added sixth sonority of the arrival of the tennis ball in m. 70 (Example 5) .Here once more we hear ascending and descending echoes of x1 (Example 6) each leading however to A#/B of an octatonic dominant on F# which underpins the ingenuous entrance of the two girls (Example 7).


The subsequent development of this idea (note in Example 7 the conjunct minor second and major third from "x2" prefixed to the descending chromatic motion) explores the flexibility of the x/ combinations (Example 8) and arrives at a framing in m. 118 of the original /x combination at pitch although significantly altered to with B natural instead of B. Here we see a synthesis of the x/ ideas in the scalic unfolding (suggestive of ) of the tritone B-E# of the chromatic "x constellation" in contrary motion and in mm.130 - 136 a neutralization of the chromatic structure of "x" into the repetitive ascending 4-note figures (E#-F#-G#-A, see Example 10) and in their upper tone first on B ( against the added sixth of a D-major sonority) and then C natural (of a B 11th / minor 13th sonority) - echoing once more the rising B-C natural of the "x" collection.

The Girls' Dance and Confrontations mm. 138 - 224

The short dances which follow manifest essential polarities associated with the two girls. The later dance with the first girl center around the sonority and tonality of E major while that of the second is clearly oriented to E and related tonalities. Their dance here is an intriguing mixture of E and D# major (Example 11) evolving to polar fifths, E-B/D#-A# (Example 12) and gravitating to low-register D#/A# tremolo from which the D# unsettlingly persists in the following measures. The disjointed succession in this section begins (against the low D#-A#) recalling the B#-C# of "x" (Example 13) but shifts suddenly at m. 144 to a thin, haunting mixture of high-register chromatic undulations about C# (Example 14) and high G-natural (of the opening chord stream in the strings of m.5) in a solo violin against the shift in the D#-A# tremolo to alternating pizzicato D# and B naturals. The low register D#-A# of these measures has a significance well beyond this passage. It is a more conspicuous focus of tension and malaise in the reconciliation between the two girls in the central "interlude" resolving significantly to D natural (m. 451) which is sustained through the initial return of ideas of mm. 455 - 472. Later, in an apparent transformation of its "aura" it is repetitively reasserted as E in the sublime emergence of the waltz in mm. 565 - 592 before the surges to the final climax of the work.

In the ensuing mêlée of mm.178 - 223, the strings become active in an octatonic chord stream (mm. 178-181, in contrast to the whole tone chord stream of the opening) leading to interjections of on D natural in the context of a G dominant seventh and then on B# above a G# dominant seventh (4/3 with the D# still n the bass) before reverting to the solo violin and high-register chromatic lines. The clear arrival in chromatic contrary motions (via the "x constellation" ) onto a C# 6/3 in m. 190 (see Example 15) splits the components of "x". The C#-D motion (against the C# 6/3) in the solo violin is echoed with he B-C natural chordal tremoli rising through the middle register to upper register E-F major, clearly indicating the role of E among the other "x" network tones of B, C, C#, D and F.

The incisive interruption of C# at the high point of the Emajor-F major flourishes alternates with a descending chromatic stream of dominant sevenths on G,F#,F natural and E (see Example 16) and, following an insurgent motive pushing to low-register C# the echos of the same dominant sevenths supports an inner-voice mid-register chromatic descent from F natural to E, D# D natural and finally C# but rising to D natural at it's cadence. The returning insurgent push to low-register C# and subsequent whole-tone flourishes touches off a clear conflict between mid-register D natural, the low-register C natural and the whole-tone rush to C# of the new motive (see Example 17) in a light waltz rhythm as the young man retrieves the fleeing girls.




Shimmering tensions in the tremolo strings earlier in this which accompanied the young man's spying on the girls behind the bushes (mm. 193-201) form an underlying nuance in the initial invitations of the following measures (mm.226-229) ; they return as an intense punctuation on E flat (mm. 241-244) before the dance with the first girl and in the episode with the second girl as the couple disappears (mm. 378 and 382) behind the bushes and finally at the end of the work following the second tennis ball. In addition to the narrative of tonalities or at least centerings on E natural and E flat with the first and second girls, the initial chromatic tones superimposed upon the B natural, C and C#, acquire similar narrative associations, the C natural, with the intruding tennis ball (mm. 70, 689) and the C# in many places of tension in the initial confrontations here between the girls and the young man, and in mm. 294 - 308 in the ironic envy of the second girl.


The First and Second Girl's Dances with the Young Man mm. 225 - 428

The descending figure which emerges above the sustained C# - actually an intervallic inversion of the "x constellation" - is carefully voice-led to the E major sonority of the young man's short dance solo for the two girls. The lush harmonies which follow are rich in resonances of C# (above an F# pedal, see Example 18 in the first violin) against the triadic tremoli around B major. Following languid "sighing" quartal sonorities in the strings a dominant ninth on C# (Example 19) is interposed which underpins rich chromatically ascending arabesques in thirds and itself interrupted by the tremolandi on E-flat major in anticipation of the returning ¾ figure as the first girl runs over to dance with the young man. The expanded duplication follows in m. 245 once but to a rich ninth sonority which here is on D# (as opposed to the earlier C#) as the young man asks for a kiss - a longer-range reflection perhaps of the C#-D# combinations and oppositions. The rich (plus alangui) sonorities against the first girl's repeated-tone melismas (see m. 272 in Example 20, note the preceding ascending motion in trills from B to C natural) center initially around a sultry alternation of octatnoic sonorities above E and A but shift upward (the same sonority on F#) to rich motions surrounding a C#13th sonority, followed by a prolonged B-C# trill, extended in a rich elongated cadence descending in mm. 280-2283 (see Example 21) descending in the inner voice from F# to B# in a prolonged anticipation of the C# of m. 284.

The second girl's dance of mock envy interrupts on the C# of the resolution, focuses on the C#-D# dyad and the chromatic trichord of "x" in a stream of sixth sonorities. While it is clearly based on the "x constellation" it emphatically extends the collection downward to A#. It further develops the C#-C natural alternation in its phrase-initial emphasis of the latter pitch in the parallel 6/5 sonorities beginning in m. 309 ("danse ironique et moqueuse"). Examples 22 and 23 show the chord streams of these passages in which the "x constellation" is effectively outlined in the lower, mid-register voice. Note also the various points of melodic inversions between the two excerpts. The remarkable melting of this episode into the "mouv't de Valse" of m.331 arises via the splitting of D natural (of the B 6/5) to E- D of an E flat half diminished sonority (Example 23, last measures) which dominates the transition to the dance with the second girl.


The link with "x2" in the clarinet is in the four tones C-D flat, E flat and F which pervades this section is part of a meandering motion above and below F natural (Example 24). Alterations of the meandering clarinet line touch upon E flat and G flat returning to E flat for the couple's joyous incipit in m. 356 (see Example 25). Deformations of the intervallic structure of "x" begin to emerge in this passage: in the permutation of the upper semitone and major third of "x" (the E- D -G -E permuted from the B#-C#-E# of "x2" in the lower part of Example 25) and, in the exuberance of mm. 362-366, in the emergence of rising and falling 4-tone pentatonic figures suggestive of the linear chromatic tones of the "x constellation" and the clear whole-tone version of the "x constellation" (B-C#-D#-E#) in mm. 365-367 (see Example 26). The subsequent chromatic motions revert more closely to the "x constellation" ascending through the chromatic tones above the collection from F natural up to B, and rising further to the initial B - C natural of x1 (mm. 371-374). This connects eventually to C# and an ascending B-C#-D# model, alternating with octatonic chordal tremoli (Example 27), and a further model ("doux et triste" in mm. 379-380, see Example 28) based literally on the "constellation x" tones and motions (in the upper line - B-C-C#-D-F-C#). The repetition of this model in mm. 381 - 386 attains a persistent E flat which slips to a whole B flat dominant in preparation for the return of the "joyeux" motive.

"En animant progressivement" is idiomatically octatonic tracing, with chromatic tones, an ascending A-E scale above the low-register A flat pedal (see Example 29), rising in passionate surges to the dominant E flat, repeated and pushed upwards to and E natural diminished seventh. The climax of the section recalls that of mm. 130-137 however in E flat major (the repeated F-G-A flat-B flat, see Example 30), and significantly obtaining B flat instead of the B-C of the analogous, earlier high point. The emotional descent from the exposed extreme high-register B flat like the diminution figures of m.221 is an inversion of the "x" (with the first girl's repeated-tone melismas of mm.264 - 275), but withholding the missing G natural until m. 434 (see Example 31) as it links to the duets in thirds in the "interlude"


Interlude mm. 429 - 454

The duets refocus of the "interlude" on "x" and the relationship of E-flat-D natural, evolving a flourish of descending triplets in minor thirds (Example 32) suggest a diminution of the slow descending whole chord stream of the prelude (mm. 5-8, G-E-B). As already mentioned the interlude progresses against an insistent recall of an earlier tension in the low D#-A# fifths, re-circulating the duet fragment with altered and transposed echoes of the second girls' descending repeated-tone melismas in the solo violin. The colorful and significant shift to the low-register D-minor sonority as the second girl succeeds in consoling the first (Example 33), breaks the continuity of the episode as it dissipates in an ascending chain of thirds and a flashing sweep in the harp (as the young man shows the girls the brilliant night sky.) The ascending B-C natural motion of "x1" creeps into the repeated chords (Example 34) which alternate with the first recalls of the work (the motive against the chromatically descending skipping thirds).



The Dance of All Three, Climax and Close mm. 473 - 709

The "new state of things" inverts the harmonic complex of the original arrival of the tennis ball (placing the B in the bass, see Example 35) and echoing the descending chromatic trichord from C natural (C-B-A#, note the metric coloration suggestive of mm. 425-428). A brief chord stream on (m. 478) anticipates the sequential transposition of the block at m. 473 to F# which descends in contrary motion superpositions of "x1" (see Example 36, ascending from F# and descending from D# but comprising the upper pitches, F#, D#, D, C#, of an "x constellation" on C). The lengthy and inexorable ascending chromatic sequence of mm. 489 - 502 is based on the descending inversion of the "x constellation" (the first girl's emotional outbreak from m. 429). It rises in its upper major seconds in the low and high registers from A flat/B flat to D/E at m. 500 which is placed above a very deliberate, rising arpeggiation (en animant) of E major. The diffusion of the sequence into a chord stream of dominant sevenths elegantly connects by its major seconds and plays with root movements within 4-tone chromatic segments (see Example 37) before its closing chromatic ascent (in root movements) fills in the thematic B-F natural tritone - from F natural to Bin dominant sevenths, and then, via chromatically ascending whole tone dominants, from A to A# to B natural.