The Seattle Symphony has released an album that consists of two ballets—shortish ones. They are by famous composers, although only one of the ballets is famous.
That is Petrushka, by Stravinsky. The other is La Boîte à joujoux—or The Toybox—by Debussy.
Debussy wrote four ballets, all of them in the first half of the 1910s. Probably the best known of them is Jeux, and it is known as an orchestral piece chiefly, unmoored from its ballet origins.
The composer completed a piano version of La Boîte but never the orchestration—which was completed for him, after his death, by his friend André Caplet.
Debussy said that he intended La Boîte to be “a work to amuse children, nothing more.” Before he set pen to paper, he had to get into the right frame of mind. He told his publisher that he was “extracting secrets from Chouchou’s old dolls.” When he had trouble with one section of the work, he said that “the soul of a doll is more mysterious than even Maeterlinck himself imagines.”
“Chouchou”—more formally Claude-Emma—was Debussy’s daughter. He had already dedicated his Children’s Corner to her. This is the piano suite in six movements, you remember. One of those movements is the “Serenade for the Doll.” It was cherished by Horowitz as an encore.
Full of paternal affection, Debussy dedicated La Boîte à joujoux, too, to Chouchou. (Apologies if that line sounds too much like Dr. Seuss.)
The story is age-old, in a sense: A cardboard soldier loves a doll; the doll loves someone else; trouble ensues.
The ballet takes just over a half-hour to play, or to dance, and it is thoroughly Debussyan: light-textured, Impressionistic, winsome. It has charm and imagination. When lushness appears, which is seldom, that lushness is startlingly effective. And there are some beautiful modulations.
Toward the end, we get some snappy martial music. Something is going on with the soldier, or soldiers.
Included in the score is a bit of Debussy’s famous piano piece Le petit nègre. This introduces some ragtime, or jazz, into the proceedings.
And allow me a memory: Long ago, when I was in junior high, I was in a class where this piece was discussed. A student asked, “What does the title mean?” The teacher artfully dodged the question. I was impressed by this.
Conducting the Seattle Symphony is its music director, Ludovic Morlot. He has a fitting touch for this ballet. He lets it be simple, uncomplicated. He does not try to make more of it than it is. He knows it’s not the Missa solemnis. He knows it is a children’s ballet—an ingenious one, composed by a master.
Here’s my problem: Listening to the music, you know that a story is unfolding. You know that the music is meant to accompany a drama (whether acted or danced). So, what is it? I’m afraid that the score really doesn’t work on its own. You can listen to Romeo and Juliet (Prokofiev) or Swan Lake (Tchaikovsky) till the cows come home, dancers or no dancers. Petrushka, too, works okay. But La Boîte à joujoux, no, in my opinion.
But I look forward to seeing the ballet, which I never have. You?