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

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


Complex, But Not Complicated

Complex, But Not Complicated

ravel“Complex, but not complicated” was a self-professed compositional creed of the great Maurice Ravel. The names Ravel and Debussy are usually spoken in the same breath, much like “cookies and milk”, “cake and ice cream”, or even “steak and baked potato”. The two great French musicians are most often given as the quintessential examples of “Impressionist” composers. I actually think that it makes more sense to think of Ravel as a classist. What I mean is, that Maurice looked back to the “Classical” era of music history and took many of his notions of what music should be from Haydn, Mozart, early Beethoven and the like. The musical aesthetic values of clarity, balance and melody from the Classical period are also present in much of Ravel’s compositional output. His music is well-crafted, and complex, but not muddled or overly complicated.

Ravel was an absolute genius of musical orchestration, that art of using combinations of instruments and their specific tone colors for musical expression. In music school, the orchestration class is where one learns about all of the instruments of the orchestra and their ranges, and how to effectively write for combinations of instruments. I think the musical examples of brilliant orchestration in my course were 50% Tchaikovsky’s, 50% Maurice Ravel’s and 50% other composers. (It was a big course.) The exceptional skill with which Ravel handled the large orchestral ensemble is also apparent in some of his chamber music, which I hope to show later in this post.

When I get the chance to listen to music live, sometimes I study up on the pieces that are on the program, to try to get the most out of the experience. Other times, I just go in cold, with only the vaguest idea of what I am about to hear. I might know the composer, or the performers, but not the specific piece I am about to listen to. That latter situation was the case when I first heard Ravel’s Trio pour piano, violon et violoncelle. It was in one of the concerts of the Great Lakes Chamber Music Festival, a summertime treat here in Detroit that puts on concerts in a variety of the large churches around town. I love the intimacy of chamber music, those compositions for a small group of players. Composers often use the symphony for their big public ideas, and work out even deeper private thoughts in the small group setting of a chamber ensemble.

Ravel TrioRavel’s piece is written for a Piano Trio, a specific chamber group made up (as you can guess from the title) of a piano, violin and cello. The title of the work has been mangled through the early publications and some recordings. It is revealing that Ravel had put the instruments in that specific order (piano, violon et violoncelle), because in doing so, he is giving a nod to the long established tradition of trio writing as found in Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, and even Mendelssohn and Brahms. Maurice was looking toward his piece being accepted into the repertoire of established (“classical”) performing chamber groups.


charlie brownThe classicism of this work is also evident in the arrangement of the four movements into a classical “sonata cycle”. The first movement is a sonata form movement. The middle two movements are a dance-like Scherzo and Trio form and a slow movement. In the case of Ravel’s trio, the Scherzo comes in the second movement and the slow movement is third, but that is not always the order in a “sonata cycle”. The finale here is another fast movement in sonata form (although it could have been a rondo form, theme and variations form, or something else and still fit into the “cycle”). Now if this paragraph is starting to sound like Charlie Brown’s teacher (a nasal wah-wah, wah-wah-wah), you can skip it and still enjoy the piece. The main point is that Ravel is borrowing a practice that was established back in the time of Haydn and Mozart. I could go on for hundreds of pages about these forms and concepts, but that would never get read. However, if you are beginning to like Western classical art music, these forms would be useful things with which to become familiar. Much of the music still performed today either plays into these concepts, or is playing against the expectations that these concepts lay out.

The first movement is marked Modéré, and is in a sonata form with some creative personalization by Ravel. One of the things that makes it sound modern, and not like warmed-over Mozart, is the use of uneven rhythms. The beats of the measure are grouped into a Basque dance rhythm of 3+2+3. Ravel was born in the Basque town of Ciboure, France and his mother was an ethnic Basque who grew up in Madrid. He comes by this Basque dance flavor of a zortziko very authentically.

The second movement is a scherzo and trio (A-B-A) form that is marked Pantoum (Assez vif). A Pantoum is a specific verse form in poetry, with four line stanzas (quatrains) containing repeating interwoven lines. The second and fourth lines of each stanza are repeated as the first and third lines of the next. For Ravel to make reference to this poetic form in the expected musical form of the scherzo, is announcing that there is great craftsmanship and complexity at work in this movement of the piece. Indeed the musical ideas are interwoven and developed much like the poetic form.

The third movement is a passacaglia (Passacaille (Très large)). This serves as the slow movement, and is built on repeating the opening eight bar bass line of the piano. You can hear the bass line repeat, and it is always present, as the music above it builds and changes. This type of form is sometimes called a Chaconne, and in modern times the two terms mean just about the same thing. In historical times, scholars tried to tie down the differences and define the two terms separately, but no one could agree on the definitions. So in historical times, the two terms also mean just about the same thing. Just listen to the bass, and enjoy the ingenuity happening above it.

Great_Lakes_Chamber_Music_Festival_LOGOI remember sitting in that live performance, my first hearing of this work, and being absolutely blown away by the final movement, marked Final (Animé). It is also a sonata form movement, but it is the orchestral texture that Ravel creates with only three instruments that caused my hair to stand up. Ravel pushes the limits of what each player can do, and the arpeggiations and layers of ideas leave the listener awash in sound. My ears swore the piano player had four hands, and that there was a team of violins and cellos playing. My eyes told me the truth, that there were still only three people on stage. The finale also incorporates some uneven time signatures and rhythms, which lifts the music out of the squareness of it’s classical era ancestry. I struggled to stand for the ovation at that concert, and I think I stopped on the way home to buy a recording of the piece.

A performance of the entire piece takes about 30 minutes. I think I wasted 30 minutes today hitting the snooze button on the alarm and waiting in traffic during the morning commute. I’m sure you could squeeze 30 minutes out of your day to listen to some good music. I assure you that the Ravel Piano Trio is well worth the time to hear.

Ravel’s Trio pour piano, violon et violoncelle