The 1717 painting L’embarquement pour Cythère by Jean-Antoine Watteau depicts a merry party of lovers arriving on (or departing from) the Mediterranean island of Cythère. In ancient mythology, Cythère was known as the birthplace of Venus, the goddess of erotic love. The version of the painting which hangs in the Louvre shows the revelers flanked by bright dancing cupids and a serenely gazing statue of Venus.
Watteau’s painting served as an inspiration for Claude Debussy’s shimmering solo piano work, L’Isle Joyeuse (“The Joyous Island”), composed in the summer of 1904. Debussy spent the summer on the Isle of Jersey off the Normandy coast. He worked on La Mer at the same time.
L’Isle Joyeuse begins with playful, frolicking lines which unfold amid the exotic harmonies of the whole-tone and lydian scales. Bright, celebratory fanfares mix with foamy waves and colorful splashes. The final moments bring a euphoric and unabashed climax in A major. In October of 1904, Debussy wrote to his publisher, Durand,
How difficult it is to play. This piece seems to me to combine every way of attacking the instrument because it unites force and grace.
This 1980 recording features the French pianist, Pascal Rogé:
Poulenc: L’Embarquement pour Cythère
In 1951, Francis Poulenc scored the music for the film, Le voyage en Amérique. Poulenc paid homage to Watteau’s painting with his valse-musette, L’embarquement pour Cythère for two pianos, which accompanied one of the film’s vignettes. This recording features Katia and Marielle Labèque:
Featured Image: L’embarquement pour Cythère (1717), Jean-Antoine Watteau