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Listening Quest March 2017: Debussy's The Sunken Cathedral

Wednesday, March 1, 2017 by Vicki Martin | Listening Quest

If you were to ask me what my favourite piece of classical music is, this is probably it. I love the rich harmonies and big washes of sound that Claude Debussy creates, and this piece shows it off. The Sunken Cathedral, or La cathédrale engloutie as it was named in the original French, is based on an old legend that the beautiful city of Ys was that was submerged in the sea, perhaps as a punishment for its wickedness, depending on which version of the story that you read. In this piece, you can hear the bells of the church cathedral, which can be heard on clear mornings or as fabled, once a century, when it rises up out of the water and then sinks back down again. You can hear in this song how Debussy recreates the rising of the cathedral by building to a big climax in the middle of the song, by the bell sounds throughout, and by the sounds of what could be waves rippling in the left hand at the end.

This recording is by Pavel Kolesnikov, a young Russian performer who won the Honens Piano Competition (one of Canada’s biggest piano competitions, held in Calgary every three years) in 2012. He now lives in London, but he’s been to Edmonton a few times since then to play with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra and to do a piano masterclass which I attended. He’s a nice guy and well worth listening to!
Extra exploring: The Sunken Cathedral is just one of twelve preludes written by Debussy. You can hear all of them here played by Claudio Arrau.  
Photo of Debussy by Nadar, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=983139
Photo of Pavel Kolesnikov by Colin Way, http://pavelkolesnikov.com