La cathédrale engloutie

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La Cathédrale engloutie (The Submerged 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 of, or allusion to, 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 these effects that reflect images of the castle, most performers use specific techniques with regards to pedaling and articulation to affect tone color. For example, some performers use their full body weight to depress keys to create a rich sound. Also performers create a ringing bell sound by instantly releasing pedaled notes. Finally, the cathedral is gone from sight, and only the bells are heard, at a distant pianissimo.

Musical analysis[edit]

The "organ chords" feature parallel harmony. About this sound Play 


The form of the piece can be traced through the progression of tonal centers and pitch collections. Debussy uses mainly pentatonic modes, primarily the mode C-D-E-G-A, moving this mode through several tonics. In the Introduction, 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, A, beginning in B major pentatonic, made distinct by eighth 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 section is a subset of A, noted as c in the timeline. It begins in measure 28 and 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, B, 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. In measure 67, Debussy transitions between G# Pentatonic pitch collection to the French-Sixth; using F-sharp, G-sharp, C, D (m.70). Debussy uses this unstable pitch collection, with no clear tonic to facilitate a smooth transition between G# minor Pentatonic to C Major Pentatonic. This also acts as the transition from the B section to the A’ section of the piece. The A′ begins at measure 72 and lasts until measure 84, where a brief restatement of the opening material in G major pentatonic acts as the postlude.

The nearly symmetrical form of intro-ABA-outro helps illustrate the legend that Debussy is alluding to in the work, and his markings help point toward both the form and the legend. For example, the first section is described as being “dans une brume doucement sonore,” or “in a sweetly sonorous fog.” Then, at measure 16, the markings say “peu à peu sortant de la brume,” or “little by little emerging from the fog.” This change in imagery (as well as the accompanying change in tonality) could represent the cathedral emerging from under the water. At measure 72, the marking says “comme un écho de la phrase entendue précedemment,” or “like an echo of the previously heard phrase,” which could be like the cathedral which had emerged gradually getting farther away and perhaps returning into the water. It also implies that this section is a mirror of one which came before, giving further support to the intro-ABA-outro structure. Finally, the marking at measure 84 says, “Dans la sonorité du début,” or “In the sonority of the beginning,” which further emphasizes the symmetry of the piece and supports the idea of measures 1-14. and 84-90 being a paired “intro” and “outro.”

Thematic/motivic structure[edit]

In this piece, Debussy composes the music using motivic development, rather than thematic development.[7] After all, “Debussy mistrusted [thematic] development as a method of composition.”[8] 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).[9] 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.[10]


This prelude is typical of Debussy's compositional characteristics. 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.


Debussy’s La cathédrale engloutie contains instances of one of the most significant techniques found in the music of the Impressionist period called parallelism. There are two methods of parallelism in music; exact and inexact. Inexact parallelism allows the quality of the harmonic intervals to vary throughout the line, even if the interval sizes are identical, while exact parallelism the sizes and qualities remain the same as the line progresses. Inexact parallelism can give a sense of tonality, while exact parallelism can dispel the sense of tonality as pitch content cannot be analyzed diatonically in a single key.[13]

Debussy uses the technique of parallelism (also known as harmonic planing) in his prelude to dilute the sense of direction motion found in prior traditional progressions. Through application, tonal ambiguity is created that is often seen in Impressionist music. It can be noted that it took some time for Impressionist music to be appreciated, but the critics and the listening public eventually warmed up to this experiment in harmonic freedom.[14]


Various arrangements and transcriptions of the piece exist. A transcription for solo organ was made by Léon Roques and Jean-Baptiste Robin in 2011 (recording Brillant Classics 94233). It was arranged for orchestra by Leopold Stokowski as The Engulfed Cathedral and released in a recording in 1930. It appears in a cover version on the album Grand Guignol by John Zorn's band Naked City. Sections of Debussy's piece are also used in the introduction and final of Renaissance's song At the Harbour, from their 1973 album Ashes Are Burning. Isao Tomita arranged the piece for electronic synthesizer as part of his Snowflakes Are Dancing recording of 1973–1974. John Carpenter used it as sound track in his 1981 scifi movie Escape from New York. The composer Henri Büsser made a transcription for orchestra of this piece in 1921, while composer Colin Matthews arranged it for the Hallé Orchestra in 2007.[15]


  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. ^ Lockspeiser, Edward. Debussy: His Life and Mind, volume 2. (MacMillin, 1965), 231.
  9. ^ Reti, Rudolph. The Thematic Process in Music. (New York: Macmillan, 1951), 195.
  10. ^ Reti, Rudolph. The Thematic Process in Music. (New York: Macmillan, 1951), 196-199.
  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.
  13. ^ Connie Mayfield, Theory Essentials (Cengage Learning 2012), 483
  14. ^ McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc. Claude Debussy, (1998): Accessed March 17, 2015.
  15. ^ "Cathédrale Engloutie". Faber Music. Retrieved 24 July 2016. 

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