La Cathédrale Engloutie

I often use a software called Audacity to explain various layers of information about a piece.

To download my analysis files click here.

A copy of the score is here.

Here’s a full version of the piece:


1. Background Information

Written in 1910, this prelude is part of the 1st book of Preludes by Claude Debussy (1862-1918). It is an excellent example of Debussy’s use of new scales (pentatonic, whole-tone, etc.), motivic construction, parallel harmony, program music, etc. and how through these techniques he constructs new sonorities and color on the piano.

1.1 Impressionism and Symbollism

Debussy developed as an artist in Paris at the end of the 19th century as the impressionist movement (Monet, Manet, etc.) ended and the symbolist movement emerged (Baudelaire, Gaugin, etc.). Paul Roberts suggests that Debussy is more of a symbolist, but some of his works can be seen as impressionist at first glance. As we will see in the sonority section below, Debussy’s music was not

1.2 Javanese Influence

Much has been said about the influence that javanese gamelan music had on debussy. Here are a few statements extracted from (Mueller 1986):

The first documented statement by Debussy on Javanese music occurs in a letter written to Pierre Louys on 22 January 1895:

Do you not remember the Javanese music, able to express every shade of meaning, even unmentionable shades, and which make our tonic and dominant seem like ghosts?

Other Javanese musical qualities are briefly alluded to in remarks appearing in his article “Taste” in 1913:

There were, and there still are, despite the evils of civilization, some delightful native peoples for whom music is as natural as breathing. Their conservatoire is the eternal rhythm of the sea, the wind among the leaves and the thousand sounds of nature which they understand without consulting an arbitrary treatise. Their traditions reside in old songs, combined with dances, built up throughout the centuries. Yet Javanese music is based on a type of counterpoint by comparison with which that of Palestrina is child’s play. And if we listen without European prejudice to the charm of their percussion we must confess that our percussion is like primitive noises at a country fair.

2. Motifs, Themes, and Form

2.1 Motifs






Motivic Constructions:

2.2 Theme 1

2.3 Theme 2

3. Harmonic Analysis: Revitalize or Abandon Tonality

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).

3.1 Pentatonic Scales






3.2 Modes

Ionian I T T s T T T s
Dorian II T s T T T s T
Phrygian III s T T T s T T
Lydian IV T T T s T T s
Mixolydian V T T s T T s T
Aeolian VI T s T T s T T
Locrian VII s T T s T T T

3.3 Whole Tone Scale




4. Form

This is a small scheme of the material we have identified so far:

b1-6 introduction (motivic)
b7-12 THEME 1
b13-27 motivic material
b28-39 THEME 2 (ff: climax 1)
b40-46 connecting material
b47-62 THEME 1 (ff: climax 2)
b62-71 connecting material
b72-83 THEME 2
b84-89 coda (motivic)

Roy Howat's proportions for La Cathédral Engloutie as written in the score.

One way to conceive the form of this piece is as being in binary form (ABAB), where A is theme 1 and B is theme 2. In this case, we have an introduction, a coda and several parts of connecting material.

However, there is significant motivic construction and development in the introduction, coda and in the connecting sections to not consider them a section on their own.

Roy Howat proposes an imperfect arch form ABCBA, with the brief intrusion of a small C section in the middle of the first A. Howat’s formal scheme is on the right.

Debussy recorded this piece in a Piano Roll.

Bar 7 According to Arrau, Pollini, Aimard and Debussy, in that order:

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Bar 22 According to Arrau, Pollini, Aimard and Debussy, in that order:

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Roy Howat's proportions for La Cathédral Engloutie as played by Debussy.

It seems that Debussy left out the markings for tempo changes between bars 7-12 and 22-83 and therefore, the length of these bars is now worth half the unit value of the others. In this new calculation Howat now recorded 55 bars as shown in the formal scheme on the right.

Howat’s research explores the use of symmetry and the golden ratio to calculate proportions in Debussy’s work. The ratio produces the number 1.61803398875.

In this case, 34/21 = 1.61904761904762, and 21/13 = 1.61538461538462. These numbers correspond to the fibonacci series {1,2,3,5,8,13,21,34,55}.

5. Sonority

5.1 Parallel Harmony as Timbral exploration

5.2 Non-fuctionality, Symmetry and the Perception of static music.

5.3 Pedaling and Mist

dans un brume doucement sonore (in a gently resonant mist)

Can be taken as a pedal indication, implying a free blending of harmonies. This kind of pedaling is often referred to as “impressionistic,” without its being noticed that the Impressionist painters did not blend their colors but separated them. Our eyes might blend all the tiny slashes of pure color from a distance – they are nearly meaningless when viewed close-up-but the result is not a blur by definition.

One of the central problems of Debussy performance, particularly on the piano, is striking the right balance between blur and definition, between color and line. (page 39)

6. Program Music

Based on the legend of Ys. According to wikipedia:

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.

The markings on the score support this thesis:

b1    Profondément calme (Dans un brume doucement sonore)
b16     Peu à peu sortant de la brume
b20    Augmentez progressivement (sans presser)
b28     Sonore sans dureté
b47    Un peu moins lent (dan une expression allant grandissant)
b72    au mouvement / flottant et sourd / comme un écho de la phrase entendue précédemment
b84    Dans la sonorité du Debut

7. Several Versions

by Debussy:


by Aimard:


by Pollini:


by Arrau:



Howat, Roy. Debussy in proportion: a musical analysis. Cambridge University Press, 1986.
Kopp, David. “Pentatonic organization in two piano pieces of Debussy.” Journal of Music Theory 41.2 (1997): 261-287.
Mueller, Richard. “Javanese Influence on Debussy’s Fantaisie and beyond.” 19th-Century Music 10.2 (1986): 157-186.
Réti, Rudolph. The thematic process in music. Macmillan, 1951.
Roberts, Paul. Images: The Piano Music of Claude Debussy. Amadeus Press, 2001.
PS. think about color in the following way:

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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