La cathédrale engloutie

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The "organ chords" feature parallel harmony.

La cathédrale engloutie (The Sunken Cathedral) is a prelude written by the French composer Claude Debussy for solo piano. It was published in 1910 as the tenth prelude in Debussy’s first of two volumes of twelve piano preludes each. It is characteristic of Debussy in its form, harmony, and content.

Musical impressionism[edit]

This prelude is an example of Debussy's musical impressionism in that it is a musical depiction, or allusion, of an image or idea. Debussy quite often named his pieces with the exact image that he was composing about, like La Mer, Des pas sur la neige, or Jardins sous la pluie. In the case of the two volumes of preludes, he places the title of the piece at the end of the piece, either to allow the pianist to respond intuitively and individually to the music before finding out what Debussy intended the music to sound like, or to apply more ambiguity to the music's allusion. [1] Because this piece is based on a legend, it can be considered program music.

Legend of Ys[edit]

This piece is based on an ancient Breton myth in which a cathedral, submerged underwater off the coast of the Island of Ys, rises up from the sea on clear mornings when the water is transparent. Sounds can be heard of priests chanting, bells chiming, and the organ playing, from across the sea. [2] Accordingly, Debussy uses certain harmonies to allude to the plot of the legend, in the style of musical symbolism.

To begin the piece, Debussy uses parallel fifths. The first chord of the piece is made up of sonorous Gs and Ds (open fifths). The use of stark, open fifths here allude to the idea of church bells that sound from the distance, across the ocean. [3] The opening measures, marked pianissimo, introduce us to the first series of rising parallel fifth chords, outlining a pentatonic scale. These chords bring to mind two things: 1) the Eastern pentatonic scale, which Debussy heard during a performance of Javanese gamelan music at the 1889 Universal Exhibition in Paris,[4] and 2) medieval chant music, similar to the organa in parallel fifths from the Musica enchiriadis, a 9th-century treatise on music.[5] The shape of the ascending phrase is perhaps a representation of the cathedral's slow emergence from the water.

After the beginning section, Debussy gently brings the cathedral out of the water by modulating to B major, shaping the melody in a wave-like fashion, and including important narrative instructions in measure 16: Peu à peu sortant de la brume (Emerging from the fog little by little). This shows Debussy at his closest manifestation of musical impressionism.[6] Then, after a section marked Augmentez progressivement (Slowly growing), the cathedral has emerged and the grand organ is heard at a dynamic level of fortissimo (measures 28-41). This is the loudest and most profound part of the piece, and is described in the score as Sonore sans dureté. Following the grand entrance and exit of the organ, the cathedral sinks back down into the ocean (measures 62-66) and the organ is heard once more, but from underwater. To attain this underwater effect, most performers use a "half-pedal," so that the dampers of the piano are only slightly off of the strings, creating a murky, muffled sound (measures 71-82). Finally, the cathedral is gone from sight, and only the bells are heard, at a distant pianissimo.

Musical analysis[edit]


The form of the piece can be traced through the progression of tonal centers. Debussy uses mainly pentatonic modes, primarily the mode Do Re Mi So La, moving this through mode through several tonics. In the A section, starting at measure 1, the G major pentatonic, G-A-B-D-E, is featured. This mode holds until measure 7, beginning a short section using the same mode now in C#. In measure 13, the G idea returns for two bars. Measure 15 marks the beginning of a new formal section, B, beginning in B major pentatonic, made distinct by eight note triplets in the left hand. After three bars, it modulates to Eb pentatonic, continuing the same thematic idea, again for three bars. The next formal section, C, beginning in measure 21 introduces a diatonic key for the first time, the key of C major. The melodic statement here in C major is the climax of the piece. Within this climactic section, measures 21-45, Debussy briefly modulates to F major, but finishes again in C major. The next section, D(ab), measures 46-67, is a composite of earlier themes. First, it brings back material from the middle of the A section, again centered on C#, but now in c# minor. Remaining in C#, it skips to material from the beginning of B, and continues with this material until bar 67, modulating briefly through E and G# minor pentatonic. A four bar transition brings back the key of C major, and C′ begins at measure 72. C′ lasts until measure 84, where a brief restatement of the opening material in G major pentatonic acts as the postlude.

Thematic/motivic structure[edit]

In this piece, as he commonly does, Debussy composes the music using motivic development, rather than thematic development.[7] Fundamentally, the entire piece is made up of two basic motifs, with the first motif existing in three different variations, making 4 fragments in total (not counting the inversions and transpositions of each).[8] The motifs are: 1) D-E-B ascending; 1a) D-E-A ascending; 1b) D-E-G ascending; 2) E-C# descending. Debussy masterfully saturates the entire structure of the piece with these motifs in large- and small-scale ways. For example, motif 1 appears in the bottom of the right-hand chords on the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th quarter notes of measure 14 (D-E-B), and again in the next three quarter note beats (D-E-B). Not by coincidence, motif 1b is heard in the 4th, 5th, and 6th quarter note beats of measure 14 (B-D-E). Motif 1 is heard on a broader scale in the bass notes (dotted whole notes) in measures 1-16, hitting the notes of the motif in inversion and transposition on the down-beats of measures 1, 15, and 16 (G-C-B). Also within measures 1 through 15 are two occurrences of motif 2 (G in measure 1, E in measure 5; E in measure 5, C in measure 15.) Motif 1 is also heard in a soprano voice from measure 1-15: The high D in measures 1, 3, and 5; the soprano E octave that occurs 12 times from measures 6-13; the high B in measures 14 and 15. Throughout all of this motivic repetition, transposition, and inversion, the themes (longer phrases made up of the smaller motifs) stay very much static, with only occasional elongation or shortening throughout the piece: The rising pentatonic theme in measure 1 (theme 1) repeats in measure 3, 5, 14, 15, 16, 17, 84, 85, and with a slight variations in measures 28-40 and 72-83. A second theme (theme 2), appearing for the first time in measures 7-13, repeats in measures 47-51.[9]


This prelude is an example of many of Debussy's compositional characteristics. First, he uses motivic development rather than thematic development. After all, “Debussy mistrusted [thematic] development as a method of composition.”[10] Second, it is a complete exploration of chordal sound that encompasses the entire range of the piano, and that includes one of Debussy's signature chords (a major tonic triad with added 2nd and 6th scale degrees).[11] Third, it shows Debussy's use of parallel harmony (the section beginning in measure 28, especially), which is defined as a coloration of the melodic line. This is quite different from simple melodic doubling, like the 3rds in Voiles, or the 5ths in La Mer, which are not usually heard alone without a significant accompanimental figure. Parallel harmony forces the chords to be understood less with functional roots, and more as coloristic expansions of the melodic line.[12] Overall, this prelude, as a representative of the 24 preludes, shows Debussy's radical compositional process when viewed in light of the previous 200 years of classical and romantic music.


Various arrangements and transcriptions of the piece exist. A transcription for solo organ was made by Léon Roques. It was arranged for orchestra by Leopold Stokowski as The Engulfed Cathedral and released in a recording in 1930. It also appears in a cover version on the album Grand Guignol by John Zorn's band Naked City.


  1. ^ Lobanova, Marina, trans. Kate Cook, Musical Style and Genre: History and Modernity (Routledge, 2000), 92.
  2. ^ Hutcheson, Ernst, The Literature of the Piano (New York: Knopf, 1981), 314.
  3. ^ DeVoto, Mark. "The Debussy Sound: colour, texture, gesture." The Cambridge Companion to Debussy. Ed. Simon Trezise. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 190.
  4. ^ Trezise, Simon. "Chronology of Debussy's Life and Works." The Cambridge Companion to Debussy. Ed. Simon Trezise. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), xv
  5. ^ Potter, Caroline. "Debussy and Nature." The Companion to Debussy". Ed. Simon Trezise. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 141.
  6. ^ DeVoto, Mark. "The Debussy Sound: colour, texture, gesture." The Cambridge Companion to Debussy. Ed. Simon Trezise. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 190.
  7. ^ Reti, Rudolph. The Thematic Process in Music. (New York: Macmillan, 1951), 205.
  8. ^ Reti, Rudolph. The Thematic Process in Music. (New York: Macmillan, 1951), 195.
  9. ^ Reti, Rudolph. The Thematic Process in Music. (New York: Macmillan, 1951), 196-199.
  10. ^ Lockspeiser, Edward. Debussy: His Life and Mind, volume 2. (MacMillin, 1965), 231.
  11. ^ DeVoto, Mark. "The Debussy Sound: colour, texture, gesture." The Cambridge Companion to Debussy. Ed. Simon Trezise. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 190.
  12. ^ DeVoto, Mark. "The Debussy Sound: colour, texture, gesture." The Cambridge Companion to Debussy. Ed. Simon Trezise. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 187.

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