I mentioned in last week’s email that Claude Debussy was one of the primary influences on Ravel’s musical development. Debussy’s place in French Impressionist music can hardly be overstated. In many ways, Debussy created the foundation for Ravel’s success. I thought it might therefore be good for us to listen to some Debussy in order to better understand Ravel’s music.
This composition is titled “La Cathedrale Engloutie,” meaning “The Sunken Cathedral.” It is a perfect example of what Debussy referred to as Musical Impressionism. In many ways, Debussy can be viewed as the Eduard Manet of music. He, like Manet, laid the framework for the Impressionist movement that was later developed by a new generation of artists. Manet’s hard work in promoting Impressionist art was central to the success of later artists like Delacroix and Monet; similarly, Debussy’s development of the harmonic framework for Impressionist music paved the way for composers like Ravel. In short, musical impressionism uses music to create a allusion to or rough depiction of an idea or story. Debussy simply named each piece after the idea or object it was meant to represent and then left it to the listener to discover how it did so.
La Cathédrale Engloutie is based on an ancient Breton myth about a cathedral that is submerged underwater near a mythical island called Ys. On calm, clear mornings, the cathedral supposedly rises up out of the ocean’s still waters. When it does so, the sounds of bells ringing, priests chanting, and organs playing can be heard across the sea. Debussy uses the variety of techniques available on the piano to represent each of these sounds. For instance, the opening of the piece is written in a circling, wave-like pattern, which symbolizes the waves of the ocean lapping at the base of the cathedral as it rises out of the water. The opening of the work is mysterious and dense, in keeping with Debussy’s written instructions to imitate the effects of fog. Once the cathedral has emerged, the pianist thunders across the keyboard with full power and pedaling in an imitation of the grandeur and majesty of the organ. As the cathedral sinks back into the sea, the organ-esque melodies can still be heard but at a softer dynamic, representing the underwater element at play in the piece. Throughout the piece – and especially at the end – Debussy includes moments in which the pianist instantly releases a pedaled note, creating the impression of a ringing bell. These bell sounds are what the piece ends with, albeit in a muted fashion reminiscent of their underwater residence