Debussy, La Cathédrale Engloutie


Claude Debussy (1862-1928)

La Cathédrale Engloutie (1910)

“The Sunken Cathedral”, tenth prelude in Debussy’s first of two volumes of twelve piano preludes each.

Based on the Legend of Ys, “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.”

It has many traits of musical impressionism, although it is also in a way Program Music, common in Romanticism.

Here’s the full piece:


A. Motif vs Theme

Let’s listen to the introduction:


As we move along the piece we can recognize this motif:


B. Tonality as home

Let’s listen again to the begining:


A sequence of 5ths creates a very open sonority and the key is not clearly determined with a cadence of any sort. Look for one throughout the piece…

Now to the end:


B.1 Do we get back home?

Now listen to the first chord:


C. Tonality as functional Harmony

As we have seen throughout the course, chords have certain functions, like for example, the dissonant dominant chord has the function of leading to a resolution into the tonic.

However, here are a sequence of dominant chords that lead to other dominant chords instead of resolving to their tonics:


As you may have noticed the cadential function of resolution is broken…

D. Parallelism

Another interesting trait in what we just heard is parallelism or parallel motion. It is already proposed in the beginning when we hear several consecutive parallel fifths.


These fifths are interpreted as the bells of the submerged cathedral. Consecutive parallel fifths and octaves and in general parallel motion were expressly prohibited in traditional Harmony and Counterpoint practice. Extreme parallel motion will probably contradict diatonic harmony and a sense of tonality.

We can hear such extreme parallelism in the sequence of dominants:


There are many other examples, but this is perhaps one of the most salient. It is a sequence of parallel diatonic chords, so not all intervals are parallel as in the dominants example above, but we still hear parallel fifths and octaves:


These are sometimes interpreted as the bells of the cathedral already emerged from the sea.

E. Strange and Exotic Scales

E.1 Whole Tone Scale

Another curious sound in the case of the sequence of dominants is found in that it has a succession of 4 full-steps or major seconds that suggests the whole tone scale:


E.2 Pentatonic Scale

The opening passage sounds as being in a major scale and in fact it is, just not our regular major scale but the Major Pentatonic Scale. Debussy is said to have heard Javanese Gamelan Music at the Exposition Universelle of 1889 in Paris celebrating the centenary of the French Revolution. His use of this scale reflects an exoticism trend in the late 19th century Europe. Here is a clip of a Javanese Gamelan orchestra, search for the pentatonic sonority:

Here are a couple of major pentatonic passages:

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Do you hear the resemblance?

E.3 Modal Sonorities

As we saw briefly at the beginning of the course, when a major scale is played starting at a note different from the first degree (i.e. starting at F in the case of C Major), then we get different modes.

Compare these two passages, the first chords are in the C Major Diatonic Scale and the second in the C Mixolydian mode. The difference is subtle, but audible:

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Finally, listen to this last passage and see if you feel like you are in strict major/minor land or somewhere else. First you’ll hear aeolian mode (a minor feeling) and then phrygian.


F. Color and Motivic Variation

Take a look at Monet’s Rouen Cathedral series of paintings. It is mainly a study of light on the same idea/place/theme or in our case motif. Now listen to the following motifs extracted from the piece and try to “see” their color:

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G. Ideas for thought

Extracted from (Kopp 1997)

Arnold Schoenberg wrote of Debussy’s “non-functional harmonies,”operating without reference to a single tonic; these, “without constructive meaning, often served the colouristic purpose of expressing moods and pictures” (Schoenberg1984,216).

Debussy himself wrote of the need to transcend the strictures of form and the limits of conventional harmonic progression in order to create music based more directly on color and beauty of sound”

Schoenberg may relate the diminished perception of conventional tonic-centeredness to a lack of “constructive meaning,”but the latter need not necessarily follow from the former. As Arthur Wenk has observed,”Debussy sought to revitalize tonality rather than to abandon it” (Wenk1983,68).

Now go to La Mer

2 thoughts on “Debussy, La Cathédrale Engloutie

  1. Pingback: The Sunken Cathedral | Timothy Judd

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