[Pt. IV Proj.2] – Moving into the Twentieth Century – Project 2- New harmonic fields – La Cathédrale Engloutie

[Pt. IV Proj.2] La Cathédrale Engloutie. Debussy was a pioneer in the use of new scales and tonalities in music. As he matured as a composer the influence of Romantic geniuses on him such as Wagner began to wane and Debussy opened a door onto a new world of sounds. He was significantly influenced by sounds from beyond Europe, in particular the Far East. He did not so much sever all ties with the European tradition’s past as focus intently on the enchanting new possibilities which he found before him, striding fearlessly into new territory. His explorations into harmony, form and musical time in the latter part of the Nineteenth Century truly shaped the music of the century to come. An example of the new harmonic world may be found in La Cathédrale Engloutie from Debussy’s first book of Préludes for piano published in 1910.

You’ll notice the first bar is essentially made up of chords moving in parallel fifths and fourths and octaves. Under the rules of functional tonality, the harmonic system used by everybody from the preceding three centuries, this first bar would not have been possible.

However, on that first page we can see and hear that while the music may not conform to the tonal system, it is harmonically clearly structured and organised. The first couple of bars consist of three principal kinds of sound –

the dotted semibreve chord at the extremes of the piano

the parallel fifths rising upward

the tolling echo as shown in the example below.

Looking on into the score you will notice that bb. three to four are very similar to the first two bars. Can you spot what is different? Bar five is also similar. The essential difference is that the bass chord, and its echo, changes each time – thus reharmonising the upper chords, A further reharmonisation occurs in b. 14 where the passage of parallel chords is extended to develop the composition. Make a note on your score where these reharmonisations happen.


La Cathédrale Engloutie.