DEBUSSY Claude, La cathédrale engloutie (The Sunken Cathedral) from Préludes, Book 1

Debussy composed his first set of twelve Préludes in an intense burst of creative activity between 7 December 1909 and 4 February 1910 (the manuscript of La cathédrale engloutie is one of only three in the set not to have a precise date). The whole set was published in April 1910 and Debussy himself gave the first public performance of La cathédrale engloutie on 5 May 1910. In this piece, which moves from the mysterious to the majestic and back again, Debussy conjures up the mythical city of Ys, long sunken into the sea, and its cathedral which was said to rise above the waves at certain times. By calling it a ‘prélude’, Debussy was returning to ostensibly traditional forms (he was subsequently to write études and three sonatas), while remaining daringly original, evoking the sounds of bells, chanting, and a noble organ-like climax. However, the title is only printed at the end of the piece – emphasising that the piece was intended, first of all, to be heard and understood without needing to rely on a specific programme.

© Nigel Simeone

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