Debussy’s L’isle Joyeuse was inspired by Watteau’s painting L’Embarquement de Cythère, in which a happy group of revellers depart for/from the mythical island of Cythera in the Mediterranean, birthplace of Venus, the goddess of love. There are two versions of the painting, the later one (right) – Pèlerinage à Cythère – showing the masts of the ship used for the journey; both paintings feature hovering, airborne cupids, whose arrows have targeted the various couples in the party. A statue of Venus is to the right.
The other island implicated in the title, which uses the English spelling ‘isle’, is the Channel Island of Jersey. In 1904, Debussy escaped to that island of joy with Emma Bardac, who became his second wife. He revised L’isle joyeuse there.
‘C’est un appel’, wrote Marguerite Long of the opening, quoting Debussy, with whom she studied the piece. Quasi cadenza, soft trills pause and then fall, winding around in a descending, chromatic spiral. Leaping LH thirds boldly interrupt, before a whole-tone scale moves the trills and spirals down an octave, and the piece proper begins.
Modéré et très souple, a RH melody of dotted rhythms, triplets, sharpened fourths and crisp acciaccaturas dances above a lightly strummed LH. Whole-tone murmuring and a mysterious theme using the interval of a third give way to sudden splashes of brilliance, like waves breaking on the shore, only to retreat and then rush in again.
Into B major for a hands crossed, two-against-three section, full of busy-ness and energy, with sudden dynamic changes giving light and shade. The trills and spirals break in, no longer hesitant but insistent and clamouring, a last boarding-call for tardy travellers to the island.
And then the voyage begins, Ondoyant et expressif, and we can almost feel the rise and fall of the swell beneath the hull as the boat makes its way across the sunlit Mediterranean. With the LH in quintuplets, nothing is four-square here, but fluid, elastic, and molto rubato, the RH chordal melody warm and generous.
A tempo, and strictly in time, for glittering demisemiquavers which dart about. The tonal centre then moves away from a bright E for the quiet mystery of the ondoyant theme in a whole-tone guise. Clanging chords in C introduce the dancing motif from the opening against racing triplets; fragments of all the themes jostle each other, hands cross, phrase lengths shorten, poco a poco animé et molto crescendo, a rushing, notated glissando… then silence.
In the distance, pp subito, can be heard a drumbeat. The dancing melody moves higher and higher above it, tension mounts, fanfares sound – and we’re there!
Un peu cédé, ff, the ondoyant melody is now brilliantly lit in sharp relief; très animé jusqu’au la fin all is wild excitement and pandemonium, with a final tremolando and a flourish, fff, as the RH jumps over the LH to land on the lowest note of the piano. Note to self – do get it right…
Here is Horowitz: