The Sunken Cathedral

La Cathédrale Engloutie (“The Sunken Cathedral”) C. Debussy (1862–1918)

By the Babylonian Rivers


The people of the Brittany section of France have a legend that a cathedral sank to the bottom of the ocean when the ancient city of Ys was engulfed by the sea as punishment for her evil and foolish ways (a story reminiscent of Atlantis). The legend has it that once every century, the Ys Cathedral rises from the sea at sunrise, and in the misty dawn one can hear the sounds of unearthly music, bells chiming, the organ playing and the sonorous chanting of the monks, before the cathedral slowly disappears into the ocean again.

Debussy was so taken with this legend that in 1910 he wrote this morning’s prelude based on it. It was one of 24 preludes Debussy wrote for the piano. These preludes have the curious feature that the title is printed at the bottom at the END of the piece — perhaps the pianist is first supposed to guess what the piece represents. (I would flunk!)