According to his son Jean, Renoir chose to live like a cork floating on water, letting the current carry him along with only an occasional adjustment of the tiller. So, in writing my musical celebration of the Luncheon of the Boating Party, I created a river theme to bridge my sketches in sound of the participants in the afternoon’s revels, serving a similar function as the promenades in Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition.
The story that propels Renoir’s Feast is my own, based loosely on the characters in the painting. We open with the river theme as a group of men and women arrive by train at a riverside restaurant. After boatman Alphonse Fournaise jovially welcomes the group, we hear the earnest conversation of the two men at the rear of the painting. A Sicilienne and Pavane portray the top-hatted figure of Charles Ephrussi, a Russian art collector fascinated with the Renaissance. The music for his raggedly dressed companion, Jules Laforgue, represents that poet’s intense emotional nature.
The flirtatious trio at top right includes comic actress Jeanne Samary, whose eyes lead us to the profile of an unidentified man at the right center of the painting. I have chosen to believe this is a cameo appearance of Renoir himself. In this section, the focal point of my musical structure, I attempt to portray Renoir in the act of painting. He was known to begin with a splattering of ideas (paralleled musically with fragments of the river theme) and then allow the painting to take form like his cork carried by water. An unfolding of lyricism and an outburst of jazz depict Renoir’s state of ecstatic abandon as the shape of his ideal woman emerges from the canvas.
The next character is Ellen Andrée, painted holding a glass to her lips. I could not resist setting her with a drunken, staggering blues. The river theme then leads us to Baron Raoul Barbier flirting shamelessly with the sweet Alphonsine Fournaise and then to an animated dialogue between Italian journalist Maggiolo and actress Angèle at center right. Aristocrat/artist Gustave Caillebotte intercedes as he looks across the table to Renoir’s future wife, Aline Charigot.
Aline, Renoir’s idea of the perfect woman, is characterized by a tender melody heard earlier in the Renoir section. A portrayal of her dog’s antics leads us to a boisterous finale featuring a reprise of all the characters’ themes. The party is now over. The revelers board the train, which then recedes into the distance.