La Cathedrale Engloutie

Claude Debussy’s “The Sunken Cathedral” is based on a myth involving, well, a sunken cathedral off the coast of Brittany. The beautiful princess of a prosperous coastal town named Ys had an affair either with Satan or one of his many lieutenants on earth (as beautiful princesses tend to do). As punishment, the town was destroyed by sinking into the sea along with most inhabitants. Local legend held that on certain days you could hear the bells of the cathedral of Ys ringing from below. On other days, it was believed to rise briefly to the surface. Debussy begins by representing both waves and the ringing of the cathedral bells. As the cathedral rises, chanting monks and priests emerge, culminating with the great organ at 2:25: a brief emergence of a grand, underwater zombie Mass of the damned. Then it all sinks again until we just hear the bells. Near the end, the great organ melody makes a muted reappearance from the murky depths.

Beautifully creepy stuff here, with the obsessively perfect Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli looking like he’s playing this from deep within his castle in Transylvania. (He actually never lived in a castle in Transylvania, but for a while he did live in one near Brescia).

5 Replies to “La Cathedrale Engloutie”

  1. Wonderfully atmospheric.

    As further evidence that Renfield is corrupting our impressionable youth, I have downloaded Perahia’s Goldberg Variations and play it while driving about town. I’m waiting for the guy in the limo to drive up next to me and ask for Grey Poupon.

    Meanwhile, I wiki-researched why it’s called “Goldberg” Variations. While doing so, I encountered performances by other artists, including Kimiko Douglass-Ishizaka, who is a German-Japanese composer, pianist, and former Olympic weightlifter and powerlifter.

    I cheerfully await Renfield’s explanation of powerlifting pianists.

  2. I’m not familiar with the powerlifter, but the strength certainly wouldn’t hurt. I’ll check him out. The go-to Bach pianist of this era seems to be Angela Hewitt. She’s wonderful. Here she is playing a prelude and fugue from Book 2 of The Well-Tempered Clavier.

    “Well-Tempered” refers to our current standard method of tuning the 12 notes of the scale in a way that allows playing in all 12 keys, major and minor, without sounding out of tune (something will always be out of tune slightly, but most people can’t hear it). There were various tuning systems being used in Bach’s day; our current one was not standard. Different tuning methods were more perfect than ours in some keys, but not as listenable in others. Bach wanted to prove that the well-tempered method is, on balance, the best, so he wrote two books of preludes and fugues in all keys, major and minor (so a total of 24 per book; WTC Books 1 & 2 together are often called “The 48”), showing the huge harmonic potential available in each key when using the tuning system we now take for granted. He obviously won that debate.

    WTC is Genesis 1:1 of the harmonic potential of modern music. It sometimes falls short as entertainment, but you can’t fault its brilliance. I find it too long and demanding to listen all at once, so I sample. Nothing wrong with that; each prelude/fugue is self-contained. My go-to is Edwin Fischer’s 1930’s recordings, which I keep on a thumb drive in my car. l sometimes play Angela Hewitt’s version at home. She’s recorded the whole set twice; I haven’t heard the more recent one. Glenn Gould’s is, as always, crazy. A number of others have recorded them; those are the only three I’ve heard all the way through, although I’ve sampled others. Life’s short, and there’s so much to listen to.

    Hewitt posted a total of 87 short “lockdown” videos during the pandemic. Great stuff, and not all Bach.

    I was recently at a stoplight with my window open and a voice next to me requested some Grey Poupon. Old friend in the car beside me.

    1. If you want something more consistently entertaining like the Goldbergs, try the French Suites and/or the English Suites. The 48, whiile they have many glorious moments, can get dour and dry in places. Some of them have an “ok, I’ve gotta write something in this key” vibe. Or maybe it was “I’ve been a bad Lutheran and feel penitential.” He was, after all, once called out for having a female “guest” up in the organ loft. Ah, the classics.

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