King Gradlon’s cathedral at the bottom of the sea

Baie de Quibéron. © Charles Thibo

Perhaps you remember my fantasy of seeing Atlantis at the bottom of the Atlantic, that I described in my post about Sibelius’s work “Oceanides”? I once tried diving – and it was exhilarating! Too bad live so far from the sea. Floating over a town at the seabed, swimming between the ruins of mansions, churches, a theatre… a recurrent dream of mine. Over a year ago, a piece of the French composer Claude Debussy woke up that fantasy: “La Cathédrale Engloutie” (The Sunken Cathedral), number 10 of the first book of Debussy’s “Préludes”.

A Breton legend

Debussy composed the first volume of “Préludes” in 1910-11, five years after his symphonic work “La Mer” (The Sea). The sea, its mythical inhabitants, the folk tales that surround it – so many inspirations for composers! Debussy took the idea for The Sunken Cathedral from a Breton legend.

During the early Middle Ages, Gradlon the Great, King of Cornwall, had built a whole city on the sea for his daughter Dahut, the town of Ys. However the sinful live of its inhabitants provoked God’s anger and he sent the devil to seduce Dahud. Upon the devil’s request, Dahut stole the keys for the locks that protected Ys from the sea. The devil opened the locks and the sea submerged the city. According to the legend, the city is only visible at sunrise – as a warning. Legend also has it that fishermen sometimes hear the bells of the cathedral ringing.

Three notes, three bells

These bells form the basic theme of Debussy’s piece – three notes, three bells – and this theme is submitted to numerous variations. Debussy uses his elements very parsimoniously, enhanced by the fact that he used a pentatonic scale, much in use during the Middle Ages (folk songs), instead of the familiar major and minor keys. The French pianist Jean-Pierre Aimard has recorded all of Debussy’s “Préludes” and I warmly recommend this recording. An exceptional pianist plays an exceptional work from an exceptional composer.

Aimard is renown across the globe for his performance of Debussy’s “Préludes”, and here is how he characterized Debussy’s musical language in 2012 in an interview with the German Deutschlandradio: “[Debussy] wanted to find a new sense of freedom. He uses harmony, a new style of harmony. He used colour, he introduced colour, timbre as a basic element into music.”

© Charles Thibo

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de Chareli

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