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The Engulfed Cathedral (La Cathédrale engloutie from Préludes ) by Claude Debussy, freely transcribed for concert band by Merlin Patterson. Hear streaming audio on this page. Suitable for high school & college bands, 6 1/2 minutes duration, Grade 5.


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Program Note

In this transcription of Debussy's THE ENGULFED CATHEDRAL, I have tried to create a work that will display the tonal beauty as well as the power and grandeur of the modern symphonic band. Unusual instrumental combinations have been used throughout, and great care has been given to subtle shadings of color and texture. THE ENGULFED CATHEDRAL (La Cathédrale engloutie) is No. 10 Book I of Claude Debussy's PRÉLUDES; it is one of his best known and most popular works, not only in its original version for solo piano, but also in its numerous transcriptions, the most notable of which is the orchestral setting by Leopold Stokowski. THE ENGULFED CATHEDRAL depicts an old legend from Brittany: To punish the people for their sins, the Cathedral of Ys is engulfed by the sea. Each sunrise the townspeople watch as the sunken cathedral rises from the water and then sinks slowly into the ocean.

Note to the Conductor

Debussy did not indicate a metronome mark, and over the years pianists have used a wide variety of tempos to convey his opening indication of Profondément calme (profoundly calm). My own preference for the opening and its corresponding closing tempo is quarter = 48. This will convey the calm and almost timeless quality of these passages.

After the opening of the work, several tempo modifications will be necessary, and since few are indicated by the composer, the conductor is urged to follow his or her own musical instinct, even if this seems contrary to the letter of the score. As to matters of tempo, Debussy himself is said to have stated that metronome markings are for the first measure only. With this in mind, the following interpretive suggestions are made:

m.14 -- Molto ritenuto (suddenly slower), with a definite lengthening of beat three; a tempo at m. 15.

m. 22 -- Molto rallentando beginning on beat four.

m. 23 -- A broader, more expansive tempo. Notes should be held to their full value.

m. 28 -- Molto rallentando, with further broadening.

m. 29 -- Sostenuto. Do not allow the accents in the brass to produce space between the notes.

m. 43 -- The special effect of the sfzmf is difficult to achieve and is not the same as an fp. The sfzmf amounts to an accented fff with a swift but gradual diminuendo to mf.

m. 63 -- Molto rallentando.

m. 65-67 -- Rubato, with a pronounced lengthening of the quarters on beat three of mm. 66 and 67, almost like short fermatas; a tempo at m. 68.

m. 73 -- Poco rallentando

m. 88 -- A gradual slowing to the end (morendo).

In the original piano version of THE ENGULFED CATHEDRAL, Debussy indicated a meter of 6/4 = 3/2 . This notation has always puzzled performers. The standard interpretation has been to perform all quarter notes the same length, whether in 6/4 or 3/2 measures. So (at a tempo of, say, quarter note equals 60) a measure of 6/4 that contains six quarter notes would last for six seconds, and a measure of 3/2 that contains three half notes would also last for six seconds.

But is this what Debussy really wanted? There is evidence based on the composer's own recording* [see footnote at bottom] of the work that he intended the length of the quarter note in 6/4 passages to equal the length of the half note in 3/2 passages. So (at a tempo of, say, quarter note equals 60) a measure of 6/4 that contains six quarter notes will last for six seconds, and a measure of 3/2 that contains three half notes will last for only three seconds.

My research has led me to believe that Debussy's recording is the true representation of his intent. For the purposes of this transcription, the 3/2 passages have been remetered into 3/4 , thus preserving the composer's intended metric proportions. This greatly simplifies performance. Therefore, in this edition, quarter notes have the same length, whether in 6/4 or 3/4 measures.

Finally, the conductor who is interested in this work should not be put off by the expanded instrumentation called for in the score. It was my intention to do an admittedly extravagant orchestration so that bands with optimum instrumentation could display a wide range of color and texture. For bands with less than ideal instrumentation many of the exotic instruments may be dispensed with. Although the work is not liberally cross-cued, it can be satisfactorily performed without the following instruments, although it should be said that their loss will result in a certain reduction of the tonal palette: Oboe II, English Horn, Bassoon II, E-flat Contra Alto Clarinet, B-flat Contrabass Clarinet, String Bass, Celeste, Harp, Piano, Vibraphone II, Crotales.

Preferable to their omission, substitutions for many of these instruments may be made as follows:

Bassoon II -- Bass Clarinet with low C.

Contra Instruments -- The best substitution for these instruments (other than contrabassoon) is probably an electronic keyboard. I am continually amazed at how realistic a good digital synthesizer can sound.

Celeste, Harp, and/or Piano -- Again, a good digital synthesizer is the best choice. (The harp glissando at m. 23 should be omitted if the part is played on keyboard.)

In addition, the percussion parts are printed in score format so that as many instruments as possible may be covered by the available players.

Recommended Recordings

Piano -- PRÉLUDES, Books I & II. Paul Jacobs, piano. NONESUCH 2CDs 73031

Orchestral -- LA CATHÉDRALE ENGLOUTIE, transcribed by Leopold Stokowski. THE STOKOWSKI SOUND. Cincinnati Pops Orchestra, Erich Kunzel, conductor. TELARC CD 80129

* [footnote:] Debussy's recording of THE ENGULFED CATHEDRAL was made in 1913 on Welte-Mignon piano roll No. 2738B and was subsequently reissued on several LP releases. For further information, please refer to Charles Burkhart's article, "Debussy plays La Cathédrale engloutie and Solves Metric Mystery," in THE PIANO QUARTERLY, Fall 1968, pp. 14-16. For those interested, Debussy's own tempo, as evidenced by the recording on the paper roll, is approximately quarter note equals 66 in the opening, 72 in the faster parts, and 64 at the close, with considerable flexibility of beat throughout.




To Mr. Eddie Green, conductor of the University of Houston Wind Ensemble,
whose encouragement, support, and performances have fueled my interest in writing for band.

Copyright © 1999 Manhattan Beach Music. All Rights Reserved.

Performance by the University of Houston Wind Ensemble, Eddie Green, conductor.

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