Claude Debussy: L’Isle Joyeuse

The first time I heard L’Isle Joyeuse, I almost jumped out of my chair. This happened at a piano recital in the library of Notre Dame university in South Bend, Indiana around 1972. A local pianist had put together a program of selected works by Debussy. I don’t remember what he else he played, but when he started my ears perked up. By the time he had finished, I was agog. First, because the piece was pure electricity, and second because I had no idea that my “boring” little community had pianists of this caliber.

L’Isle Joyeuse had another effect on me: it made me take note of the work of French composers. Until that time, I’d listened to few works outside of the three big “Bs” of German music-Bach, Beethoven and Brahms. Oh, I did become fascinated by the Eastern Europeans–Rachmaninoff, Borodin, Tchaikowsky and Liszt–but I considered these to be in the same tradition of the Germans:  encapsulating the Sturm und Drang that was raging in my adolescent brain-box.

Debussy’s music was a conscious revolt against the Germans. By the end of the 19th century, their sensibility had reached a peak in what Stravinsky called the “tyranny of the Wagnerian system” whose operas were hyper-romantic, multimedia events, which–I’m sorry for showing my philistinism here–I wouldn’t really call subtle, or light, or joyous. Stravinsky in his ” Poetics of Music” describes creativity thus: “it always goes hand in hand with the gift of observation. And the true creator may be recognized by his ability always to find about him, in the commonest and humbles thing, items worthy of note.”

Perhaps that hold the key to what drew me to Debussy and then to French classical music. Debussy as I said before tried to capture in his music what the visual artists of his day–Van Gogh, Monet, Renoir–had succeed in doing by inventing Impressionism. Debussy’s music tries to capture the beauty in the world around us and the emotions that nature invokes in us. His contemporaries, Ravel and Satie and heirs, Poulenc, Milhaud, and (I know he was Russian but he spent a lot of time in Paris) Stravinsky, all seemed to carry on that lightness, spontaneity and joy, which paradoxically, we find in people who are really grounded in the here and now.

The liner notes on my copy of L’Isle Joyeuse says it was inspired by an Impressionist canvas. Which one, it does not say. The translation of the title, “The Joyous Island,” makes me think of an uninhabited, Eden-like tropic island, where animals and birds roam free and in a primeval state of grace. The piece starts out with a kind of shy, high trill, which makes me think of a hesitating animal, like a deer, coming out of woods. Then starts a little melody, sounding something like a jig, which, keeping with the animal image, makes me think of fawns gamboling in a pasture. This eventually expands into a lush, chromatically rich interlude, full of beauty and life. I feel the sun and smell the surf and the heady perfume of wildflowers when I hear this.

It also gives me a rather humorous image of Debussy thumbing his nose at all those stuffy Wagnerian operas. In a way, that is one of the most charming things about the French: despite the chaos of the world around them, they insist on retaining their culture through which they appreciate great works of art, music, and gastronomy. In that way, they affirm life and rejoice in simply being alive. How can anyone fault that?

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About kurtnemes
Writer and Education Professional. Specialties include Ethics, Personal Memoir, Classical music, Tai Chi, Stress Reduction, Meditation, Coping, Classical Music, Aging, Love, Joy, Compassion and Equanimity (& what interests me.)

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