L’isle Joyeuse

I want to tell you about a piano piece. If technologically feasible, please listen to this recording while reading.


[0:03] The piece begins with a rapid C#-D# trill, then an augmented fifth arpeggio progression that falls in a blurry flurry. The cadence is bizarre and nearly atonal, a hurried and hazy opening. The notes draw pointed attention to themselves, but the texture they paint together is one of roiling water. You already know, a piece with an intro like this is going to be a wild ride.

[0:27] Excited Theme 1. This is Claude Debussy’s L’isle Joyeuse, or Isle of Joy. It’s inspired by the painting “L’embarquement de Cythère” by Jean-Antoine Watteau (see above), which depicts happy couples celebrating on the idyllic island of Cythère, the birthplace of Venus. Composed in 1904, around the middle of his composing career, it’s one of Debussy’s few standalone solo piano works and also one of the most virtuosic. It centers around the Lydian mode, like a Major scale but with an extra sharp on IV (D#). It makes the piece sound brighter, like the music can hardly contain its jubilance. Especially when accompanied by the bubbling left hand, they conjure an image of sprites dancing merrily in the air.

[1:00] Mysterious pulsing two notes. This moment marks the piece as unmistakably Debussy-esque. These pairs of notes — played above rolling triplets — wander up the keyboard in a whole-tone scale. Debussy and his fellow impressionistic composers loved using the whole-tone scale, where the the symmetric spacing between the six notes lent a sound of mystery: you can’t tell where the scale starts or ends.

[1:20] Swimming chromatic wandering. You could probably tell from the intro, but this piece is hard. Like, if Debussy’s famous Clair de Lune is 4/8 in difficulty, L’isle Joyeuse is a solid 7/8. Big swaths of it are just opaque black blocks of sixteenth note triplets. Here, the texture is accomplished by a casual 3-to-2 polyrhythm with crossed hands. No big deal.

[1:44] The rapid C#-D# trill returns, as does the blurry flurry. The trill jumps energetically up and down the keyboard two octaves at a time. A brief repeat of Theme 1, then…

[2:07] Calm Theme 2. This theme breathes. The melody, still in the A Major Lydian mode, floats effortlessly up and down the keyboard, accompanied by a gentle and fluffy fabric of sound. It’s pure, light, cheerful.
Every time I reach this passage, my heart warms, and I my mind wanders back to the first time I listened to this piece in October. I was having dinner with fellow musicians after a great autumn hike, and I was intrigued by the enticing strangeness of it. I immediately recognized the Debussy-ness of it, but it was unfamiliar, so I listened to it closely, hearing for the first time the little details I’ve been describing to you. Someone at dinner commented on how Maurizio Pollini, the pianist playing it on YouTube, sings along as he’s playing this part. When I heard his merry humming at the quiet peak of the theme, that was the moment I knew: I just had to learn L’isle Joyeuse for myself.

[2:49] Atmospheric twinkling. In this passage, a whole-tone scale ascends in a faltering rhythm, sounding simultaneously gentle and agitated. It also calls for the right hand to flit up and down the keyboard to weave a smooth and glittery blanket of sound. Many of Debussy’s other compositions (e.g. Reflets dans l’eau, Jardins sous la pluie) employ this pattern to evoke an image of water. This artistic philosophy — of creating images using the textural interactions between many pieces that are not intrinsically coherent — was shared by his French impressionist contemporary painters, especially Monet and Renoir. Whenever I see their art in museums, my brain instantly starts playing Debussy.
If you’ve ever tried emulating impressionist painting, you’d know that without extraordinary finesse it just looks like a muddy mess. L’isle Joyeuse is the same. It’s 14 formidable pages of 32nd notes and polyrhythms and stuff, but I was quite frankly obsessed, I learned the piece frantically, finding 20 hours in 2 weeks to memorize it. And I sounded like shit. Ask anyone who walked by as I was practicing it. They were just like… “dude, wtf are you doing?”

[3:43] Frantic Theme 1! Then rising pulsing two notes! Then a frenetic return of Theme 1! This is the part of the piece when Debussy gets really excited. The familiar themes emerge with a firmer sense of rhythm and purpose.
For many months, I persisted at polishing this piece. This and the other pieces I added (Reverie, Ballade, Arabesque 1) to balance out my Debussy set. Between classes I dashed across the street to the piano to drill passages. After rehearsing with my quartet, I’d hang around for a few more hours. Instead of practicing my orchestra part, it was just more Debussy. I became that pianist who snuck into the lounge at night to play this piece for myself. This is in sharp contrast to when I was younger, when I was always the musician who never practiced enough, but suddenly this piece was urging me to eke 6 hours every week out of a full med school schedule.

[4:22] The ominous part. It’s weird because the whole-tone scale can’t actually be minor, but somehow Debussy manages to change the mood.
Umm, I’ll just say that with my shaky hands, I’m still Peter the poor precision piano player. This piece is beyond my comfortable technical threshold, but whatever.

[4:36] Exuberant pulsing two notes. If Debussy wants to emulate trumpets and then recapitulate his whole-tone scale pattern forcefully on a piano, he just goes for it. I think of this as the 20th century’s take on Drake’s “YOLO.”

[4:55] Triumphant Theme 2. This time, the theme doesn’t breathe, it shouts. The music switches confidently from the Lydian mode to the normal Major scale, and it pounds it into your ears with rapid octave chords in both hands. It’s loud, enthralling, and heart-pounding (I’ve measured it, playing this doubles my pulse).
It’s both the music and the desire to produce it that transports me to a different place. In front of a piano, my breathing shallows, my eyes unfocus so they can “see” the entire keyboard, and my mind and muscle memory delve inwards to retrieve music. When enraptured by the melodies and rhythms, my body forgets about time, about hunger and thirst and voiding.

[5:22] The piece ends with a rapid C#-D# trill, then an augmented fifth arpeggio progression that falls in a blurry flurry, except that it’s faster and much, much louder. The assertive whole-tone scale played simultaneously shouts to the world in celebration, marveling at the noise and the power that a piano can produce. L’isle Joyeuse is a crazy, kooky, and wild piece that doesn’t match my personality or my strengths on piano, but there’s no turning back. I love it.