Friday, October 2, 2009

Claude Debussy and the City of Ys

When I bike ride by the sea, I often wonder about what mysteries lie beneath its surface.

I know there are shipwrecks out there, memories of mariners battling raging nor'easters, and long-faded sounds of deckhands celebrating their return home. But it's difficult to picture these images simply by looking out over the ocean alone. Those sea is so overwhelmingly beautiful and mysterious, that its stories seem to lie in some mystical, inaccessible place, hidden deep beneath its wordless waves.

But I was recently reminded that there is a place where the sea finds its true voice, allowing the stories of all those who came before us to ring out loud and clear. That place is the world of music.

It happened a few days ago when I rediscovered a wonderful album on my iPod:

Claude Debussy: Preludes for Piano, Book I
Performed by Maurizio Pollini

Deutsche Grammophon recording

These short little piano pieces -- 12 total -- are so ethereal and evocative, as is almost all of Claude Debussy's music. Reacquainting myself with each prelude one-by-one was like taking a journey into a quieter, more mysterious world.

For those who love the sea though, Prelude #10 is simply magical.

Entitled "The Sunken Cathedral", Prelude #10 refers to the mythical city of Ys. According to Breton legend, Ys lies in ruins at the bottom of Douarnenez Bay off northwestern France. For one day out of every century, Ys' old cathedral rises up out of the ocean in great waves of water, color, and sound, its organ blasting through the wind. The magnificent cathedral hovers over the sea for a while, reminding Brittany's coastal dwellers of the ancient city's former splendor. But then back it sinks, farther and farther until once again it rests at the bottom of the ocean. The only sound that remains is that of the wind blowing across the waves.

Now you can listen to Debussy's work with this myth in mind literally, and it's wonderful. His wide open harmonies and chant-like melodies paint a vivid picture of the cathedral rising up from the water. But what makes the work truly extraordinary is that Debussy goes deeper than that. He finds the inner mystery in the tale, bringing to life those universal emotions that tie all of us together, as all great myths do. Feelings of wonder, peace, spaciousness, grandeur, fear, and quiet. And like the best storytellers, Debussy leaves as much unsaid as said, letting your imagination fill in the rest.

So after listening to Debussy's Prelude #10, I returned to the sea on my bicycle today, riding in the early-morning hours before work.

Standing there at the ocean's edge, I realized that Debussy gives shape and form to that indescribable emotion I had always felt by the sea -- the sense that there's something out there ... something magical, something greater than ourselves. Whether it's sunken cities, memories of ships past, or epics stories of ancient mariners ... artists, musicians, and writers allow us to express the mystery we all feel when confronted with the awesome vastness of the ocean. From the sea's hidden history, they unlock the gate to that faraway place where all the old tales lie.


  1. By the way Jason, I went to see a chamber concert a week ago or so. I would have loved for you to have been there to discuss it. The group was called The Eighth Blackbird. The played ultra-contemporary music but they played with such incredible musicianship that it was spell-binding. They were focused like surgeons as if how they performed meant the difference between life or death. It did. The music stunk, but they brought it to life.


  2. Beautiful writing, Jason, If you like the Debussy Preludes (there are two books of them; I had to analyze them all one semester) , you'll love La Mer: never mind that musicians have called it Mal De Mer for years! Drip me a note (@rick_vosper on Twitter or via my blog) and we'll swap music anecdotes some time. --rick