There is a region in Northwest France that is named Brittany. This is the home of the ethnic group of Bretons, who speak the ancient Celtic language of Breton. This language is related to Cornish, and more distantly related to Welsh. The ancestors of the Bretons came to this part of France over 1,000 years ago from the southern part of Great Britain.
There is an ancient Breton tale, told in a number a versions, of the mythical city of Ys. The city was located near the Bay of Douarnenez on the coast of the Brittany region. There are several changing elements to the tale, but in all cases the city was below sea level and protected by the walls of a dike, with only one gate. The king Gralon was the holder of the one and only key to the gate. Inevitably, the key is stolen and the city is flooded forever.
In some versions, the legend of Ys is a morality tale. The king’s daughter, Dahut, was said to lead orgies and kill her lovers at sunup. The flooding of Ys is seen as God’s punishment for the corruption and bad behavior. Sometimes, there is a knight with a red beard that convinces Dahut to steal her father’s key to the gate. The knight turns out to be the devil in disguise. Sometimes the tale is spun as a victory of Christianity over paganism, as Dahut and the populace were said to worship the old Celtic gods. Gralon was eventually converted to Christianity by Saint Winwaloe.
No matter the reasons for the flooding of the city, it was said that the bells of the cathedral could be heard underwater on calm days. In a further evolution of the tale, once every hundred years the cathedral rises up from the sea on a clear morning. Sounds of the church organ and bells can be heard to grow louder and louder until they fade away again into the sea. This image of the sunken Cathedral, rising up from the water and back again, is what inspired Claude Debussy (1862 – 1918) in one of his Preludes for Piano, La Cathédrale Engloutie.
Debussy, and his fellow Frenchman Maurice Ravel, are the two composers most often associated with musical impressionism (although Debussy despised the term). It is a musical aesthetic borrowed from the movement in painting. In music, it is meant to refer to music that hopes to portray an image or idea. This would make an impressionist piece of music a sort of program music, in the sense it represents something outside of the “purely” musical.
The idea of a “prelude” deserves some explanation. The term suggests the piece should be a preface to something. This is the way Bach treated the idea in his Well Tempered Clavier, where a strict Fugue follows each free-form Prelude in each of the 24 major and minor keys. Generations later, in the Romantic era, composers kept the name “Prelude” but made the piece a free standing work of its own. In the 24 Preludes Opus 28 of Frederic Chopin for example, there is nothing following each Prelude. They stand alone as a short character piece, complete unto themselves. Debussy also wrote a set of stand-alone Preludes, of which our sunken cathedral is one.
Debussy is one of the most original and modern composers to write for the piano, or any instrument for that matter. Although Bach and Chopin wrote pieces in each of the major and minor keys, it becomes difficult to describe all of Debussy’s preludes as being in a specific key. Debussy used chords for their color, for the way they sounded, and because he liked them. La Cathédrale Engloutie begins with open fifths that cannot be categorized as major or minor. He uses them in parallel motions that do not outline a key. Claude is using them in this manner because they sound like the church bells of the Cathédrale. Many of the scales that form the melodic fragments are five note pentatonic scales, further denying the listener a specific key center. All of this is a very modern (and new for the time) approach to writing music. The Prelude is constructed symmetrically in a three part form, with an introduction and a coda. This could be schematized as intro, A-B-A’, and coda (or “outro”).
The music grows in thickness and volume, as our Cathédrale rises up out of the water. Debussy includes liberal use of the sustain pedal throughout the piece. The sustain pedal on the piano allows a note the player strikes to keep ringing as they move to new notes. Here it has a way of blurring these chords together. Each chord doesn’t resolve to the next, in any sense of functional harmony. They are used as colors, to musically paint the image Debussy is trying to depict. All of this could get very harsh in the wrong hands, but Claude ensures a very pleasant and consonant sound by consistently using intervals of the third, fourth and fifth.
Eventually the music fades away, as the Cathédrale sinks back into the water. Debussy portrays the imagery with absolute genius, making this Prelude one of the most famous pieces in the piano repertoire. Further elaboration of the legend of the city of Ys claims that the entire city will rise up from the sea when Paris is swallowed up. In the Breton language “Par-is” translates as “similar to Ys”. Now, please don’t bury Paris just to test this theory. I hope to travel there someday, and there is too much nice stuff in the French capital to risk on just a theory or legend. But if you find yourself near the Bay of Douarnenez, listen carefully to the water on a calm day and see if you hear church bells emanating from below.
Addendum: The painting in the video is a lovely image by the French Impressionist painter Claude Monet. Although it is an impressionist painting of a building near water, it is not an image of a cathedral. It is actually one of the series of paintings Monet did of the House of Parliament in London when he lived there from 1900-1905. It is a wonderful painting, and I can see why it was included in this video, but Monet deserves some credit and clarification for his work. – Rich