La cathédrale engloutie


La cathédrale engloutie

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 a characteristic work of Debussy in its form, harmony, and content.

Significance

Musical Impressionism

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 ambiguousness to the music's allusion. [Lobanova, Marina, trans. Kate Cook, "Musical Style and Genre: History and Modernity" (Routledge, 2000), 92.] Because this piece is based on a legend, it can be considered program music.

"Legend of Ys"

This piece is based on an ancient Breton myth in which a cathedral, which is submerged underwater off the coast of the Island of Ys, rises up from the sea on certain mornings. Sounds can be heard of priests chanting, bells chiming, and the organ playing, from across the sea. [Hutcheson, Ernst, "The Literature of the Piano" (New York: Knopf, 1981), 314.] Accordingly, Debussy uses certain harmonies to allude to the plot of the legend, in the style of musical impressionism.

To begin the piece, Debussy uses parallel fifths in excess. 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. [DeVoto, Mark. "The Debussy Sound: colour, texture, gesture." "The Cambridge Companion to Debussy". Ed. Simon Trezise. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 190.] 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, [Trezise, Simon. "Choronology of Debussy's Life and Works." "The Cambridge Companion to Debussy". Ed. Simon Trezise. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), "xv"] and 2) medieval chant music, similar to the organa in parallel fifths from the Musica enchiriadis, a 9th century treatise on music. [Potter, Caroline. "Debussy and Nature." "The Companion to Debussy". Ed. Simon Trezise. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 141.] 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. [DeVoto, Mark. "The Debussy Sound: colour, texture, gesture." "The Cambridge Companion to Debussy". Ed. Simon Trezise. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 190.] 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".

Music Theory

Form: This piece is in binary form (AB, or, abab), one of Debussy's most common compositional forms. [Reti, Rudolph. "The Thematic Process in Music". (New York: Macmillan, 1951), 204.] The first section is contained in measure 1-46 and is repeated (with some themes slightly shortened or elongated) from measures 47-89, forming the B section.

Thematic/Motivic Structure: In this piece, as he commonly does, Debussy composes the music using motivic development, rather than thematic development. [Reti, Rudolph. "The Thematic Process in Music". (New York: Macmillan, 1951), 205.] 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). [Reti, Rudolph. "The Thematic Process in Music". (New York: Macmillan, 1951), 195.] 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. [Reti, Rudolph. "The Thematic Process in Music". (New York: Macmillan, 1951), 196-199.]

Context: 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.” [Lockspeiser, Edward. "Debussy: His Life and Mind", volume 2. (MacMillin, 1965), 231.] 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). [DeVoto, Mark. "The Debussy Sound: colour, texture, gesture." "The Cambridge Companion to Debussy". Ed. Simon Trezise. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 190.] 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. [DeVoto, Mark. "The Debussy Sound: colour, texture, gesture." "The Cambridge Companion to Debussy". Ed. Simon Trezise. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 187.] 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.

Notes

External links


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