La Cathédrale Engloutie

La Cathédrale Engloutie

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.

ys bookThere 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.

ys city

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.

Claude Debussy

Claude Debussy

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”).

Cathedral IIThe 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.

Claude Debussy, La Cathédrale Engloutie

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

Exhibitionism Part 3:  Showing it All

Exhibitionism Part 3: Showing it All

Two of the most dramatic movements of “Pictures at an Exhibition” are “The Hut on Fowl’s Legs (Baba Yaga)” and “The Great Gate of Kiev”.  Fortunately for our discussion here, both of the Hartmann images have survived.  These two pictures inspired Mussorgsky to write some of the most memorable music in the entire suite. The first of the two images is of an ornate clock in the figure of a hut or house.   The house stands upon the legs of a chicken.

Baba Yaga clock

This image would be immediately recognizable to any Russian, especially one who was scared as a child with the story of Baba Yaga.  This story has many different variations, and several parallel stories in other cultures.  Baba Yaga was a Slavonic supernatural witch, who lived in a fearsome hut in the woods.  The hut stood on chicken legs, and would magically rotate to face each new person who happened upon it.  She would lure in lost children, and eat them for dinner.  Baba Yaga flew around on a large mortar, steering with a pestle, and used the mortar and pestle to grind up the bones of the victims upon which she dined.  In most versions, there also is a broom which sweeps away her tracks.  I imagine this story was used as a morality tale, to scare Russian children into good behavior, lest they be sent into the woods to face Baba Yaga.   Before we judge this child rearing tactic too harshly, we should remember Grimm’s fairy tales were also pretty gruesome before Disney got their hands on the stories.

Mussorgsky drew upon both the image, and the tale it invokes when writing his section of “Pictures” to accompany this Hartmann creation.  Here is the original piano version.

Modest Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition: The Hut on Fowl’s Legs (piano version)

This dramatic music invited some brilliant orchestration from Maurice Ravel in the most popular orchestral version.  There are an endless supply of recordings of the Mussorgsky/Ravel version, but one of my favorites is by Sir Georg Solti with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

Modest Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition: The Hut on Fowl’s Legs (orch. Ravel)

As we saw in the previous post, Mussorgsky’s music has withstood transformations into versions he never could have imagined.  My newest favorite is by the progressive rock trio Emerson Lake and Palmer.  Their recreation of “Pictures” can be heard complete at the end of the previous post, but here is the Baba Yaga selection to sample.

Modest Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition: The Hut and the Curse, Baba Yaga – Emerson Lake and Palmer

The big finale of “Pictures” comes in “The Great Gate of Kiev”.  This image has a real world story behind it.  In April of 1866, there was an attempted assassination of Tsar Alexander II, one from which he escaped, and survived.  Following this close brush with death, a contest was held to design a gate to the entrance to the city of Kiev to commemorate/celebrate the survival of the Tsar.  Viktor Hartmann thought that his design for the city gate was some of the best work he had created.  Sadly, the contest was called off, and no gate was ever built.  Hartmann’s design was included in the memorial exhibition that Mussorgsky attended.  The exhibition catalog listed this image as “Stone city-gates for Kiev, Russian style, with a small church inside”.

Kiev Gate

Kiev was the birthplace of Christianity in Russia, in 988 when Vladimir of Kiev converted to Christianity and ordered a mass baptism of his subjects in the local river.  (No need to win the hearts and minds of your subjects, when you can just order them around.)  This Christian theme is reflected in Hartmann’s design by the small church on the right of the image, with three bells in the tower.  Another description of the gate indicates that there was to be an inscription above the arch that read “Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord” (in Russian, of course).  Mussorgsky’s music is a grand statement that matches this grand image, and borrows from a Russian hymn.  It is a proper finale to the suite, and simply oozes Russianness.

Modest Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition: The Great Gate of Kiev (piano version)

This grandiose finish to the piano suite just begs for orchestration, a task which has been performed by a large number of people (as we have seen).  Here is the ever-present Ravel version.

Modest Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition: The Great Gate of Kiev (orch Ravel)

When Leonard Slatkin performed his compendium version of “Pictures” at the Proms in 1991, he had the opportunity to do something special.  In Slatkin’s version, a different orchestrator was chosen for each movement.  The finale was performed in the Ravel orchestration that we find in the above video.  As an encore to the successful concert, Slatkin was able to repeat the finale in a different orchestration.  To close the concert, he very appropriately chose the version created by Sir Henry Wood, the founder of the Proms in England.  Leonard Slatkin’s enthusiasm for “Pictures” is what began this series of posts, so it is only fitting that I end with him conducting that encore.

Modest Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition: The Great Gate of Kiev (orch Wood)

More Exhibitionism

More Exhibitionism

Continuing my look at “Pictures at an Exhibition”, I picked one of the movements for which we still have the original image.  At the memorial exhibition of the works of Viktor Hartmann, there were several sketches of ballet costumes he designed.  The title of the music inspired by one of these images is variously translated as “The Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks” or, “ The Ballet of the Chickens in their Eggs”.  The sketch was made in 1870, portraying some costumes for children to be worn in a ballet entitled “Trilby”.  The choreography of the ballet was done by Marius Petipa, music by Julius Gerber, and the plot of the evening taken from a short story by the Frenchman Charles Nodier.  There were four sketches of the costumes included in the exhibition, and the one that caught Mussorgsky’s eye was described in the catalog as “Canary-Chicks, enclosed in eggs as in suits of armour.  Instead of a head dress, canary heads, put on like helmets, down to the neck”.


When someone says “Russian” music, or mentions a “Russian” sound, people often think of that low, bass heavy, dark, “Slavic” sort of atmosphere.  There are certainly several parts of “Pictures” that deliver on that prototypical Russian flavor.  “The Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks” is not one of those pieces.  This is light, high-pitched music that squeaks and squawks like small birds.  The dancers for this part of the ballet were to be children, and the music is clearly connected to the image from the Harmann Sketch.  Here is the original piano version.

Modest Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition: Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks (piano version)

Modest Mussorgsky

Modest Mussorgsky

The musical aesthetic at work here is one of Realism.  This is Mussorgsky portraying in music the details and image he has gotten from the sketch.  That sounds simple, but is really a very important point in context.   There are no sonata forms in “Pictures”, or fugues, or any sort of Germanic artistic value placed on balance and symmetry.  This is Russian music, and for the Russian Realists at the time “true beauty resides in life and the primary purpose of art is to reproduce reality”.  In his realism, Mussorgsky was also a true musical Populist of the Russian people.  “Pictures” could have included any number of images from the large exhibition, but the ones he chose to use included peasant Fairy Tale images (Baba Yaga), and things that affected the peasant people.  Images like a children’s plaything (Gnomus), disputes between children at play (Tuileries), the contrast of rich and poor persons (“Samuel” Goldenberg and “Schmuyle”), death (Catacombae), women quarreling in the market (Limoges le marche’), as well as our children dancing the “Ballet of the Unhatched” Chicks”.  This is not Beethoven nor the generation of German Romantics portraying their individual expression of the artist as hero (themselves usually).  This is Populist Modest portraying his Russian image of Russian people and lives, using the musical language and syntax of his native Russia in the form of folk music and phrasing/harmony derived from folk music.

Here is the same music, in our most familiar version orchestrated by Maurice Ravel.

Modest Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition: Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks (orch. Ravel)

In the previous post, I shared some of the different orchestrations of the original piano music.  In addition to being orchestrated to over 20 different versions for orchestra, “Pictures” has been transcribed for all sorts of musical ensembles.  Sometimes people have transcribed the entire collection of miniatures, and other times have picked only one or two pieces to mutate for their purposes.  I have collected a selection here for us to sample our short ballet in different guises.

Here is the movement for woodwind quintet.

Modest Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition: Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks (woodwind quintet)

As a brass player, I have spent many hours in rehearsal and performance in concert bands.  There are some good pieces of music written for concert band, and a lot of great and famous music that has been transcribed for concert band.  One of the strange idiosyncrasies of my musical life is the large number of concert band performances I have played in, but rarely do I attend one.  I have only a handful of recordings of wind bands and wind ensembles, and a virtual mountain of other music.  Clearly, wind bands are more fun for me to play in than to listen to.  Here is our ballet transcribed for concert band.

Modest Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition: Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks (concert band)

When I started writing last week about “Pictures at an Exhibition”, my old friend Mike contributed priceless information in the comments.  Mike, as you remember, is a fellow composer and my musical brother from another mother.  He pointed out that the English progressive rock trio Emerson Lake and Palmer had performed a version of “Pictures at an Exhibition”.  I confess I had never heard this version before last week.  I’m beginning to realize I should listen to a bit more of the output of ELP, because I completely enjoyed their take on “Pictures”.  Here is this complete album of their performance, with thanks, respect and gratitude to Mike for his insight. I wonder if Mike could have produced a version with his heavy metal band, Ugly But Proud?  Well, I know he could have, if only there were enough hours in the day.

Modest Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition:  Emerson Lake and Palmer