Debussy wrote L’isle joyeuse, a meaty and virtuosic stand-alone composition, in 1904. In June of that year, after five years of marriage, he left his wife for the singer Emma Bardac, and spent the summer with her on the Isle of Jersey off the Normandy coast – where he wrote the piece. While it’s only natural to think that the sheer excitement of being with a new lover could have been the sole inspiration for this impassioned music, the Isle of Jersey was but one of two “Islands of Joy” that Debussy apparently had in mind (or in heart). 18th-century French painter Antoine Watteau’s painting, L’Embarquement pour Cythère, portrays a group of revelers as they depart for the island of Aphrodite, the ancient Greek goddess of physical love – and it’s not hard to imagine that Debussy also sought to express the travelers’ excited sense of erotic anticipation.
After a series of trills, the piece’s main motif appears – a fast and festively dancelike outpouring in rondo form that’s almost orchestral in effect, overflowing with triplets and syncopated rhythms, to ecstatically exuberant effect. The music soon calms down into a 3/8 meter episode that suggests the boat’s rocking – but the sense of eager expectancy (and the tempo) increase as the island comes into view as the music hurtles headlong to an exciting finish.
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