The Sunken Cathedral (a brief look at a few measures)

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A melodic analysis of measures 28-40 of La Cathédrale Engloutie

It is a pleasure to be able to feel the future and look into the past, simultaneously. We are often taught as musicians, irrespective of genre, to both pay respect and learn from the masters of times past, and then proliferate individual, new, statements from such learned material. Effectively making the old new. Rebirth. Renaissance. What a weight! The transparency and effectiveness with which one accomplishes this is a matter that takes its place among the most sought after personal goals for many an artist. But it sure can be tough. When a work effortlessly fuses our past, present and future, effectively merging time as a whole, and fusing our experience to it, we unsurprisingly, are moved. Perceptually, sociologically, intellectually. It is Debussy’s compositions, that fall into this prestigious category, that both harken back to an ancestral music, while at the same time finding a way to evoke the future.
A small excerpt (m. 28-40) from his 10th prelude for solo piano (from book 1 of 2), entitled La Cathédrale Engloutie (Trans Eng. The Sunken Cathedral) will help us see how, while harbouring an interest and desire (musically and philosophically) in works from the past, he anticipates movements of times still not born.
We limit ourselves to a short passage. The measures that will be discussed appear as the third section in the piece.

It is worth noting that there are analysis’ that propose that this is the second movement, owing to the interpretation that m. 1-15 are an introduction. I find this perspective flawed, for the logical reason that; the movement following an introduction is most likely to be defined as a carrier of the more important thematic, and representative material than the introduction. So it follows that m. 1-15, with it’s rising parallel chords, pedal tones, and perfectly sounding 4ths and 5ths, which will be present throughout the piece, functions as much more than introduction. It is this material that serves to introduce us to the grand spectacle of a cathedral rising from the depths of the sea, as is told in the Breton myth that serves as the composition’s inspiration.

While this short analysis will focus primarily on the melodic aspects of this excerpt, I will call into play a few harmonic considerations to help illustrate my ideas. Additionally, I will briefly describe the 1st section to provide a touch context.

As has been mentioned, the opening section relies heavily on its use of parallel 4ths stacked above a pedal. We are presented with pitches residing in the key of no sharps or flats. If we are to ignore the pedal that begins in m.3, the melodic material with its quartal harmonization, purposefully avoids any tri-tone activity. Perfectly obscuring the most essential and dramatic interval at play for the Romantics and their immediate predecessors, eschewing a drama constructed form narrative and precise emotional calculation through traditional tension and release, and instead, evoking awe from a sense of space and symmetry. This instinct, to create freedom from openness, looks to the future, of modal jazz, the avant-garde of the 60’s, the minimalists and many others. In the first six bars of the piece, the melodic pitches of the opening statement, which is repeated three times is the pitch class set class, (0,2,5). An ubiquitous set. Heard in many forms of music. More on this later.

The third section begins on m. 28. Established by a ‘c’ pedal tone, the listener is presented a melodic theme that continues the ambiguity, and rising quality of the opening motif of the piece. Accompanied by unstable 2nd inversion parallel triads in octaves, but Debussy’s use of these rotated triads, in the context, serves a function of stability and triumph. As the cathedral rises from the waters, this (al)most traditionally tonal section of accompaniment serves to give the listener a familiar sensation and relationship, while still distorting its appearance. Hence the use of strictly 2nd inversion chords. Not known for their stability. The melody continues it’s shine, its bright hue due to the pang of the perfect 4th, which is its distance above the chordal movement, strictly, for the duration of this section. I have deconstructed this section into three different sub-sections, and with this parsing, we begin to see the architecture more clearly.

The prime form represents the most objective distillation of a pitch class set. If one prescribes to the pitch set theory, the pitch set class, or prime form, puts forth the essential sound of a collection of pitches. The beauty of this is that as a tool of analysis and composition it leads one to discover, and hear similarity and relationships, in groups of notes that seem, at least s!uperficially, distantly distinct.
In fig. 1 you will see the highest registered note of each chord, it is choral-like movement, all harmonies moving with the melody. I have bracketed the sections with their section and phrase number. After which I have provided the prime form of the melodic content.
A1.1 shows a typically modal motif, outlining a 5th, made from a step of a second followed by a leap of a 4th. A1.2 is preceded by two passing tones linking it with A1.1, and like its predecessor it is again a 3-note motif with the distance of a 5th, but it is a variation. We now travel downward a 4th, then upwards a 5th. These collections illustrate the prime form concept clearly. Just as two intervals can share the same character, whether inverted or not, so can collections containing higher numbers of pitches. Debussy, unknowingly looking forwards to the aesthetic of sound for sounds sake. A1.3 is a slight modification, but keeps squarely in context, as the differing number in the set, the 5, as opposed to the 7, relates to a 4th, where as the 7 signifies a 5th. Both highly crystal, and evocative of brightness, and the inverse of the other. A charming nod to tonality is the structural outlining of a triad if one is to pay attention to the resting note of each phrase in A1.

B presents itself as two phrases whose melodic content is strictly pentatonic. It is in this intermediate section that one finds the most exoticism. For the pentatonic scales used, are not of the common type. To find an interval of a minor 2nd in a pentatonic scale is surely a sign of Debussy’s looking Eastward for aural inspiration, as the pentatonics in common usage did not usually contain this interval vector. And nicely, again, if we are to utilize pitch class theory, an identical prime form for B1.1 and B1.2. The same colour. Different notes.
Debussy has changed modes in B, the difference of one accidental, a ‘b flat’. This does not indicate a modulation from C Ionian to F Ionian. Rather it is preferable to look at it again as a slight change in colour, similar to the difference in the beginning three phrases of the A section, but on a more macro level. If one is to label the change with from a colour-concious perspective, Ionian to Mixolydian, both based on a C ground, it would be the most preferable due to the underlying harmonic content. In the writings of Ron Miller’s excellent modern jazz theory, he sets forth a continuum along which modes reside. If we are to discuss only the church modes, based of the same root: the brightest would be Lydian, and then each subsequent flattened note would darken the mode. If we follow the progression of modes around the circle of fifths, but adjust the root to stay the same, we follow with Ionian, Mixolydian, Dorian, Aeolian, Phyrgian, Locrian. Debussy was hearing large swaths of colour, and composing in accordance.
Another option for one’s understanding would be to segregate the melodic and harmonic planes, and see the parallel accompaniment as a representation of the past, of the organ of the submerged church, or the ghosts of its medieval monks engulfed in submerged plane-chant. And the melody above, a view of an exotic land as the steeple reaches for the surface.
The ‘g’ at the beginning of m. 36, serves as a structural pivot point. For it commits to two functions at once, as it serves both the pentatonic scale it concludes from B.2, and the miniaturized reoccurrence of A1.
What has been bracketed as A2.1 is a condensed version of A1.1 and A1.2. Essentially representing two identical prime forms symmetrically divided by a short-duration of three-notes. Although it is not as clean cut as its fore-bearer, it delivers us from B.
The lone ‘f’ and ‘a’ unceremoniously stranded between A2.1 and A2.2, I have excluded from A2.1 for the sake of showing the resemblance to A1, but if we are to add them to A2.1, again we find prime form similarities with A2.2.

However, most satisfactory is another perspective that is indicated, if the listener is to hear, as I did, the escape-tone nature of the penultimate pitch in the section. Upon listening, the ‘e’ felt fleeting and ornamental. If this one note is removed from our analysis, we are to find that each section, on the most macro level, belongs to the pitch class set class (prime form) (0,2,4,5,7,9). Which when rendered in traditional harmonic language, is a Major 6/9 chord. Or a major triad with added 2nd and 6th scale degrees. Or also known as one of Debussy’s favourite chords (and one which Messiaen would later adore as well). The forward thinking hearing of sections in colour, and the ability to draw influences from the past and exotic, illustrate Debussy’s experimental nature. His command of fusing this as an original and new whole, testifies to his timelessness.!


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Sunken cathedral examples

© Alex Formosa