Besides an homage to childhood, Debussy’s The Toy Box also seems to be a tribute to the works, and composers, that inspired him. The score is, in short, a collection of his favorite musical toys.
Most of the scholarship on the ballet concerns its presumed – and I use that word deliberately – fidelity to Igor Stravinsky’s Petrushka. Robert Orledge suggests numerous references to Stravinsky’s score, the most significant, in his view, being a passage near the start of the score. A chain of chromatic thirds in Debussy’s prelude seemingly recalls the entrance of the ballerina in scene 2 of Stravinsky’s ballet. Moreover, in The Toy Box Punchinello is represented by a theme comprising alternating seconds; a comparison can perhaps be made to the alternating seconds representing the ghost of Petrushka, except that Debussy sticks to major seconds, while Stravinsky alternates major and minor. The two scores share the octatonic scale, although Stravinsky relies on it more heavily than Debussy, and there are some common instrumental choices (for example, snare drum rolls mark the transition between scenes). Yet the references to Petrushka, such as they are, mingle with echoes of other Stravinsky works, notably The Firebird and The Rite of Spring. Ultimately, Debussy proves too subtle a composer for musicological games of gotcha: he resists directly quoting Stravinsky’s melodies and harmonies. Instead he alludes to much more elusive things: the texture (thickness or thinness) of Stravinsky’s scoring in certain passages; the instrumental combinations he prefers; the registers within which real and invented snatches of folksong fall.
Debussy was a French Symbolist composer seeking to recreate a child’s sense of enchantment; remember that he conceived The Toy Box for his tragically short-lived daughter Emma (affectionately nicknamed ChouChou). He does not parody Stravinsky. Indeed within the ballet, parodies are frowned upon. In scene 4, the marionette children’s performance of the polka displeases their marionette parents for the simple reason that it is comical, an impish satire of a proper polka. Scene 1 finds an English wooden soldier in blackface performing a cakewalk. The music is foursquare and feeble, completely unidiomatic. The character tries to mock an African-American dance, but mocks himself instead.
Rephrasing the point, we might say that the correspondences between Petrushka and The Toy Box are atmospheric, ephemeral. Perhaps Debussy wanted to show that French puppets are different from Russian puppets – kinder, gentler. (To wit, one surviving photograph of The Toy Box finds Punchinello choosing wine over vodka.) Perhaps Debussy wanted his references to be themselves like toys: What, he might have wondered, would be a cardboard cutout of a folksong? How would it sound? How to miniaturize a leitmotif? Debussy’s task, in essence, was to distance his borrowings, to preserve their faint outlines rather than their actual contents. Here we have the musical equivalent of Didier Maleuvre’s fabulous definition of a toy as “an object from the hic et nunc [here and now] of empirical experience – an object removed into the distance of its own image.” This is exactly the nature of Debussy’s references to Stravinsky: they are distant sonic images.
The Toy Box offers small-scale reproductions of passages from Petrushka, like the delicate furniture in a dollhouse rightly sized for a young girl’s hands. At the same time, however, it greatly expands Stravinsky’s soundscape, effectively universalizing it. Children, after all, have more vivid imaginations than adults. Debussy’s network of allusions proves richer than his rival’s; the eminent French composer displays all of his creative devices, pulls out every toy in his musical chest. Stravinsky’s bricolage of folksong borrowings becomes, in Debussy’s hands, a cluster of gentle-spirited references to French, German, and Russian masterpieces. When the soldier declares himself to the doll, he quotes the reunion music from scene 3 of Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloe; they kiss to tolling bells that echo Felix Mendelssohn’s famous Wedding March. The battle scene evokes Gounod’s Faust, and the episode of the soldier’s wounding refers to the opening of act 3 of Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde.
As Jose Martin’s first noted in a 1985 article, there are also a plethora of allusions to Musorgsky’s Pictures of an Exhibition. This makes perfect sense. If each scene in The Toy Box pops up like a page in storybook, what better to quote than a composition that tours a portrait gallery? Debussy cites several passages from Musorgsky’s score, although he pointedly avoids invoking the music of the promenade, perhaps to avoid the banal.
My sense is that Debussy would have frowned upon any attempt to identify his quotations (my own included) or catalogue the goods in this boutique-like score. Such mundane exercises, he might have protested, drain the magic from the music. And so here we might recall the French Symbolist writer Charles Baudelaire’s essay “A Philosophy of Toys.” Baudelaire argues that toys are children’s first exposure to art, to the powers of enchantment. Disenchantment, or melancholia, descends when the child, succumbing to morbid curiosity, tears the toy apart seeking to perceive its soul, only to confront an absence.