Originally published in 1910, La Cathédrale Engloutie (which translates to “The Sunken Cathedral”) was the tenth work of Claude Debussy’s first volume of preludes. This solo piano work is an excellent example of musical impressionism, depicting the ancient Breton legend of Ys. Ys is a mythical city said to be off the coast of Brittany, France. The city was submerged in the ocean as retribution for the sins of the King’s daughter. It is said, however, that the cathedral still rises from the sea on clear mornings and the sounds of priests chanting, bells sounding, and the organ playing can be heard.
The opening of the piece presents the listener with a motive that resembles the waves of the ocean and represents the slow rise of the cathedral from the water. As the cathedral enters into full view, Debussy guides the listener to a powerful and organ-like fortissimo line to paint the image of the cathedral and its majesty. As the sound of the organ dies away, the cathedral is slowly consumed by the ocean once again. Finally, the sunken cathedral is out of sight as the waves cover it and only the bells can be heard tolling from the depths of the sea.
This arrangement utilizes nine percussionists to represent the cathedral’s mystical image. The chosen instrumentation expands upon the spectrum of colors which embodies the sounds of the singing priests, a passionate organ, and tolling bells.