Tuesday, August 17, 2010

The Toy Box Ballet

"The toy is the child's earliest initiation into art, or rather for him it is the first concrete example of art, and when mature age comes, the perfected examples will not give his mind the same feelings of warmth, or the same enthusiasms, or the same sense of conviction."
{Charles Baudelaire in his essay, 'A Philosophy of Toys'}

"[Toy-boxes are] really just like towns in which toys live like people - or
maybe towns are really just toy-boxes in which people live like toys."
{André Hellé, illustrator of 'La Boîte à Joujoux'}

Debussy - La Boîte à joujoux o

Debussy - La Boîte à joujoux p

Debussy - La Boîte à joujoux e

Debussy - La Boîte à joujoux c

Debussy - La Boîte à joujoux b

Debussy - La Boîte à joujoux a

Debussy - La Boîte à joujoux i

Debussy - La Boîte à joujoux j

Debussy - La Boîte à joujoux k

Debussy - La Boîte à joujoux m

Debussy - La Boîte à joujoux h

Debussy - La Boîte à joujoux d

Debussy - La Boîte à joujoux n

At first blush, one might suppose that the 1913 ballet music Claude Debussy's composed for his daughter Emma - 'La Boîte à Joujoux' (The Toy Box) - would be a fairly benign conceptual piece. But the last great masterpiece from the French composer is said to resonate beyond evoking the imagination of a child in a simple four act story of character conflict where toys come to life.
"..the music and the ballet that emerged from it is a revelation. The Toy-Box offers a corrective to the grinding dissonance and ideological heaviness that characterized artistic trends outside of France. It was, in short, a riposte to German Expressionism and Soviet avant-gardism, an effort to define modernism in a positive rather than a negative way.

"For one thing, the characters in the original conception derived from the Italian tradition of commedia dell'arte; for another, there were various visual and narrative allusions to silent film, circus, and vaudeville."

The score was charmingly sketched in watercolours by the French children's book author and illustrator, André Hellé, who shared Debussy's fascination for toys and his desire that the ballet be performed by children. Alas, the war intervened and the first production of the ballet (by adults) did not occur until the year after Debussy's death in 1918.


MrCachet said...

Great Post! Now I only wish I could find some old Toy paper that I could use for my art!

Rachel Riggs said...


Unknown said...

Awesome post!! Thanks for sharing!

Playing by the book said...

I've been looking for images of this for a while - thanks so much! I have an occasional series - Stories in Tune - where I write about how I've been using picture books to introduce classical music to my kids, and I would love to "do" this ballet by Debussy, but haven't been able to find any picture books inspired by this story (other than the original illustrations you have here). Do you know of any retelling of the story in picture book form?

peacay said...


That's a good question Playing by the book. The short answer is I don't know but if you play around with some search terms you might turn up some different versions. For instance, you might follow up with some of the images from this search. I would also pay worldcat a visit. I suspect that you will have more luck in French than English, if other picture books on this ballet are around. Good luck!

Ribambins said...

You might also want to check this blog for more information on Hellé.

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