Claude Debussy: L’isle joyeuse

Program notes for Tippet Rise Art Center, July 13, 2018.
© Benjamin Pesetsky 2018. Not to be reprinted without permission.

Claude Debussy is the composer most closely associated with Impressionism in music, but L’isle joyeuse is tied not to Impressionistart, but rather to earlier Rococo and Romantic paintings by Jean-Antoine Watteau (1684–1721) and J.M.W. Turner (1775–1851).

Watteau’s L’Embarquement pour Cythère, found in the Louvre, was one inspiration for Debussy. The painting shows three couples and assorted partygoers departing from the island of Cythera, the traditional birthplace of Venus. Another inspiration was a gallery of Turner’s paintings, mostly landscapes and seascapes, which Debussy visited at the National Gallery in London in 1903.

L’isle joyeuse marked Debussy’s return to writing piano music after a period of success with larger works. In 1904, he had a new publishing deal and was enjoying growing fame as he entered his 40s. It was also a time of transition: he would soon leave his wife, Lilly, for Emma Bardac, the wife of a banker. They eloped in Jersey (an island sometimes erroneously identified as an inspiration for L’isle joyeuse) before they finalized their divorces in 1905.

Ten years later, when asked by a musician for advice on interpreting the piece, Debussy responded, rather dryly, “It seems to me that the title L’isle joyeuse can provide clues.” But listening closely yields something more specific: chaotic joy—coalescing and dissolving in raptures.

L’Embarquement pour Cythère by Jean-Antoine Watteau, 1717