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Music Art: “La Cathédrale Engloutie” by Claude Debussy Essay

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Updated: Mar 18th, 2020

La Cathédrale Engloutie, by Claude Debussy, written between 1909 and 1910, evokes an ancient church that has sunk below the waves (Thiollier). The listener might imagine that this occurred as a result of an earthquake, perhaps as punishment for human arrogance, or perhaps as a result of enchantment. It mysteriously reappears from time to time, with its tower bells ringing out loudly.

Like some sort of ecclesiastical Brigadoon, frozen in time, the drowned cathedral comes alive again, with all its music and grandeur. It then disappears beneath the waters.

Written in Debussy’s mature years, La Cathédrale Engloutie is programmatic and reflects as well his willingness to experiment with chords that were not necessarily familiar to 19th and early 20th century listeners. In these respects, this work represents how much Debussy innovated in composition and how much later listeners owe to him.

The piece begins quietly, suggesting that the church is becoming more visible, and the bells and other ecclesiastical music more audible. There is a motif that suggests a hymn, or the higher range of tower bells or perhaps a carillon. This disappears, to be replaced by low notes that may suggest the depths of the ocean. Then the sound of tower bells, being rung in ‘rounds,’ is quite distinct again.

The listener then hears rising, major chords that may hint at the church appearing fully to the eye and ear. Majestic chords, like those on an organ, perhaps, sing out what could be a hymn tune, a song of praise and thanksgiving. This fades to near silence, along with a sound very much like a few last giant tower bells being rung down to rest.

Another tune is heard, a gentle and pleading one that increases in intensity and fades likewise, with a few more chords evoking the sound of partially tuned bells clanging together. Then a rumbling in the lower registers may suggest that the cathedral is ponderously sinking back to the very bottom of the ocean.

Claude Debussy (1862-1918), although a prize-winning student of the Paris Conservatory, was not shy about novel experimentation with chords, and instrumental effects (Encyclopedia Britannica). As such, his innovations have shaped subsequent classical music, movie scores, and popular songs in powerful ways. His great gift to subsequent generations of listeners is his ability to combine musical elements in previously unheard of fashion.

He absorbed and then freely used non-European harmonies and rhythms. He had heard unfamiliar folk music while traveling through the Slavic countries and was later struck by Javanese gamelan music, performed at the Paris Exposition Universelle of 1889 (New World Encyclopedia). Both influenced his work.

Debussy was also strongly affected by the work and thought of the Impressionists who were taking the art world, in France especially, by storm. They were overturning all previous constraints of academic art. Artists such as Cezanne, Monet, and Renoir wanted, instead, to paint what they saw – their impression of a scene.

Although Debussy preferred to call himself a Symbolist, it seems clear that he was trying, as well, to paint, with music, what he perceived, rather than building an abstract and formal musical structure (New World Encyclopedia).

Thus, music commentators usually term him an Impressionist. He used exotic harmonies and intriguing and unexpected techniques to draw from classical instruments striking evocations of mood, weather, location, and emotion, all created with sound.

Listen, then, in La Cathédrale Engloutie, for chords that sound like bells, tunes that sound like hymns, and a way of vibrating the lowest keys of the piano that we take for granted these days as signaling activity in the bowels of the earth or the depths of the sea.

These effects were quite radical for Debussy’s first audiences, but we hear their parallel in much of the music we listen to today – if nowhere else, then in the background music for endless TV shows and movies.

Works Cited

Encyclopedia Britannica. “Claude Debussy.” 2013. Encyclopedia Brittanica. Web. December 2013. <http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/154804/Claude-Debussy>.

New World Encyclopedia. “Claude Debussy.” 2013. New World Encyclopedia. Web. 12 December 2013. <http://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Claude_Debussy>.

Thiollier, François-Joël. “La Cathedrale Engloutie.” By Claude Debussy. 1909-1910. Web. 28 January 2014. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JAVyKDDsM3s>.

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