Measure by Measure

Out of the Watery Depths

Debussy’s sunken cathedral

By Sudip Bose | June 8, 2017
<em>Flight of King Gradlon</em>, Évariste Vital Luminais (Musée des beaux-arts de Quimper/Wikimedia Commons)
Flight of King Gradlon, Évariste Vital Luminais (Musée des beaux-arts de Quimper/Wikimedia Commons)


In the folklore of Brittany, few cities are as fabled as the coastal settlement of Ys, famous as much for its beauty and picturesque setting as for the terrifying fate that befell it. Several versions of the legend have survived the centuries, but the story goes essentially like this: in order to prevent the towering waves of the Bay of Douarnenez from assaulting Ys at high tide, the Breton King Gradlon orders the construction of a massive dike, with a gate built into the fortification, to be opened only at low tide. Only one key to this gate exists, and the king is in possession of it. The waters are kept out, yet not all is well with the city. Under Gradlon’s reign, Ys also became known as a place of libertine pleasures, with the king’s daughter, the lurid seductress Dahut, at the center of it all. One night, the Devil arrives in disguise and tricks Dahut into seizing the key and unlocking the gate—right in the midst of a raging midnight tempest. At once, the waves come crashing through the fortifications of the city, inundating its streets and submerging it beneath the sea. Only the cathedral, symbol of the decent and devout people of Ys, enjoys any kind of afterlife, as it is said to rise up out of the watery depths on clear days at sunrise, the ringing bells and booming organ audible across the expanse of the bay, before sinking back into the sea by night.

Over the years, the myth has enchanted many an artist, among them Édouard Lalo, whose opera Le roi d’Ys (The King of Ys) was a sensation at Paris’s Opéra-Comique in the late 1880s, with some 100 performances staged. (By contrast, Georges Bizet’s Carmen received only 33 performances during its initial run at the same theater.) Claude Debussy, then a young bohemian at large in the French capital, would have very likely been at the Opéra-Comique on one of those nights. But no matter how he came to learn of the Ys legend, he found it beguiling, too, and he made it the subject of one of his most poetic and harmonically inventive piano pieces, La cathédrale engloutie, or, The Sunken Cathedral. It is not surprising that he was drawn to this story, for when it came to musical evocations of water—whether the sea or the rain, or the reflections upon its surface—Debussy was the supreme impressionist. Just listen to the first few measures of La cathédrale engloutie, the succession of chords in intervals of fifths played very softly, with a feeling of drowsy calm, the pentatonic scale carrying a whiff of something potent and exotic: it’s almost as if we can hear the gentle tolling of church bells from well beneath the surface of the sea. The morning mists soon dissipate with a key change to B major, and now Debussy summons forth the cathedral. As the church begins its beautiful, gradual ascent, the music grows steadily louder, and we hear, in the triplet figures in the left hand, the parting of the waves, until the structure emerges, resplendent in the brightest sunlight. With a progression of dense fortissimo chords, Debussy transforms the piano into a grand church organ, a sonic image as visceral as the tumbling waves in the composer’s tone poem La Mer. I hear a lovely defiance in those organ-like chords: no watery grave can contain that music, tamp it down—in my more optimistic moods (which seem fewer and fewer, the more I dwell on a future of rising tides and sinking cities), this seems a lovely metaphor for the human spirit. At any rate, having sung out its monumental hymn, and with the day now drawing to a close, the cathedral descends into the water, and the sonorities of the piece’s opening are heard again. We can just make out, amid the echoes and the afterthoughts, the quiet ringing of the bells from beneath the sea’s surface, a haunting, mesmerizing sound.

Debussy completed La cathédrale engloutie—the 10th of his piano Préludes, book one—in 1910. And though most of the Préludes in the set bear more specific dates, this one does not. In his book The Life of Debussy, Roger Nichols suggests a tantalizing possibility: that Debussy may have been drawing on more than an ancient Breton legend when writing the piece, that perhaps he was inspired by an actual flood—the inundation of Paris’s streets at the end of January 1910, when the Seine rose nearly three times its normal level, cresting at 20 feet.

During the summer and autumn of 1909, rainfall had been persistent and heavy, swelling the Seine gradually. When winter hit, the weather worsened; Paris experienced far worse than its typical seasonal flooding. With the Seine at its highest point since the mid-17th century, 12 of the city’s 20 arrondissements were flooded. Some 200,000 Parisians were left homeless, and 20,000 buildings were ruined. Only one death was officially recorded, though some accounts put that figure as high as five—still an astonishingly low number given the calamity. The city’s sewers and tunnels, marvels of engineering, were no match for the rushing waters. Photographs of the period depict Paris as the second coming of Venice, with residents floating down the boulevards in boats or traversing the temporary wooden walkways built by French government engineers. Not until the middle of March did the Seine return to its normal depths.

Was it this devastation that led Debussy to summon up the legend of Ys? I’d like to imagine that it was, and that he knew of this Breton proverb: Quand Paris sera englouti, resurgira la ville d’Ys. That is, only when Paris is engulfed will the city of Ys reappear.

Listen to pianist Yvonne Lefébure play La cathédrale engloutie:


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