Summer 1993: Walter Gieseking, Debussy’s Préludes I & II, EMI (La cathédrale engloutie)


First Person

Claude Monet, “Rouen Cathedral,West Façade, Sunlight,” 1894. Licensed under CC0 2.0.

I’m living in East London, in Cadogan Terrace, at the far end of Victoria Park. I work as a copytaker at the Daily Telegraph, typing in stories dictated over the phone. (This was a very long time ago.) Sometimes it is crown green bowls, sometimes it is a yachting regatta in Pwllheli. Sometimes it is a massacre in Bosnia. On a whiteboard are names we might find hard to spell: Izetbegović. Banja Luka. Srebrenica.

I bicycle to Canary Wharf down Grove Road. The last of a row of terrace houses is in scaffolding, then gradually uncovered to reveal a concrete shell. For a long time I thought this was just the way houses looked beneath the skin, but this is, in fact, Rachel Whiteread’s House, which will go on to win the Turner before being demolished by the council.

Whiteread makes casts of the space enclosed by ordinary objects, using the object as mold. (This generally destroys the object. Space repays the violence inflicted by the objects which imprison it.) Whiteread will go on to create Water Tower, a resin cast of a water tower, and Nameless Library, a Holocaust memorial in Vienna, of which more later.

I have bought a small blond upright piano for £900 despite my low pay.

Now that I have a piano I can redress my shameful ignorance of musical theory: I have Schoenberg’s Theory of Harmony, Rosen’s The Classical Style, a few others. Someone mentions the ninths in Debussy’s La cathédrale engloutie (The Sunken Cathedral). I have no idea what a ninth sounds like, but now, you see, I have a piano; I play the fragment of score in the text.

An octave sounds very clean and simple and reassuring and self-confident. Debussy’s ninths in La cathédrale engloutie are in fact tacked on to octaves, or rather, it’s as if he took two notes at the interval of a second, with that unapologetic jangling clash, and then intensified the dissonance by adding the same two notes an octave away. It is a bit of a stretch for the hand (at least for me), and the effect (at least for me) is of the octave striving to be something more—discarding simplicity and ease for effortful dissonant ferocity.

I think it would be good to learn a piece that is not part of my mother’s repertoire. My mother was a prodigy, lavishly instructed in childhood and adolescence, graduate of a conservatory; I had had a few months of lessons at age 9. The only pieces I knew were the ones I had heard my mother play; I would sight-read laboriously through them, trying to replicate the pieces I had heard. But now I have a piano; here is a chance to confront my neuroses.

I buy the score of Debussy Préludes I at Foyles and begin to tackle La cathédrale engloutie.

Reporters call in under fire. Reporters call in, shouting copy over the roar of a football crowd. James McGrath calls in racing copy. Bruce Johnston calls in copy on Berlusconi. Derek Pringle phones in sensible copy on cricket. Imran Khan calls in copy with a slighting aside on the sporting prowess of Derek Pringle.

There are intervals worse than a ninth, intervals impossible to span with my size of hand.

The piece is difficult but not impossible for someone with patchy musical training and much experience of tackling impossible pieces unassisted.

(I am working on a novel (Op. 97? 98? 99?), a novel that will one day be destroyed by the publication of my “first;” it’s hard to write about this time.)

(I had done a doctorate in classics at Oxford, and now the mind had been submerged in a series of dull jobs while trying to write a book.)

I don’t know how the piece is supposed to sound, so this is different from learning pieces my mother played. Also, as I work on it, I am identifying intervals mentioned in my book on harmony.

Thanks to our friends at Wikipedia, I now know things about the piece I did not know when I was learning it. (

Debussy wrote pieces inspired by images; in this case, he took inspiration from the legend of a drowned cathedral which emerged from the sea on clear days. The piece covers a wider range of the keyboard than is common, going right down to the dull thick sonorous notes at the bottom and high into upper octaves, and the score, for the person learning by sight-reading, reinforces this sense of venturing perilously beyond firm ground and shallow water (for me, at least, the octave immediately below middle C does always feel like the safe shallows at the beach, the octave above like the safe flat easily traversable sand)—these notes are not on the barred lines of the basic bass and treble clefs, but above and below, on short lines like rungs of a precarious ladder. What I mean is that, though they become straightforward to sight-read with practice, something of the sense of going to the bottom of the sea or up to the stratosphere lingers from the very early days when one first deciphered these notes.

Debussy gives the impression of tumbling waves—not just the rise and fall, but the confusion and foam—first by arpeggios in the bass with dense chords floating on top, then by runs of double octaves in the bass (these are not straightforward for an amateur), with slightly thinner chords above. There is a very beautiful passage where the cathedral emerges from the waves. I would play this passage in moments of despair over my book.

At some point I thought that I would like to hear how it was supposed to sound. I went to the Barbican and listened to a recording by Walter Gieseking, which I then proceeded to buy. And play. Incessantly.

The CD was the sort of CD that justifies the existence of CDs, a CD whose liner notes included three different takes on the career of Gieseking, one in English, one in French, one in German.

“Best remembered today as the subtlest of miniaturists, Gieseking in life was a great hulk of a man (six foot three in his stocking feet and tipping the scales at more than fifteen stone) whose repertoire embraced everything from Handel to Schoenberg and whose confidence was rarely matched by modesty…”

“Gieseking subirait-il une sorte de purgatoire? Cela n’aurait rien d’extraordinaire. Il a construit au disque une sorte de Panthéon du piano… ”

“Technische Übungen mache ich nie. Ich halte diese überhaupt für gänzlich überflüssig…” [1]

It will be obvious that Gieseking’s rendition of La cathédrale engloutie showed just how botched my version of the piece had been. It should be obvious that intervals that are unmanageable for a woman who is five foot five in her stocking feet are likely to present less difficulty to a man who is six foot three. The whole time I was listening to this piece—which was, of course, the first I played on the CD—I was ravished not merely by the extraordinary control of tone, the delicacy and fluidity, but by the contrast between this thing of glory and my own lumpen efforts. Yes.

Charles Rosen (Notes on the Piano) talks about the way recordings have changed attitudes to performance—it is as if the recording is the definitive version of the piece by which live performances are measured, a deadening alteration if the performance is to be something new and fresh in the concert hall. He naturally does not have in mind the galvanizing effect on the amateur who hears a work for the first time as a piece of music rather than a succession of more or less difficult passages strung together. The curious thing was—and this has happened many times—that understanding how a passage might work as a phrase, hearing it played at, I will not say the right, but at a defensible speed, somehow made the piece more playable. Intervals that ought to have simply been outside the reach of my fingers became just barely possible once I knew how the passage worked musically.

I then listened to the CD all the way through. It has to be said that I listen to music as a writer—that is, one who was made to read short stories in school and remains baffled by the form. It seems as though a writer’s short stories nearly always show a disheartening uniformity of style (Carver has a recognizable style, Munro, Hemingway, Beattie). Sometimes the uniformity is transcendent (Lydia Davis!), but one way or another there’s an awful lot of uniformity. Composers tend not to work that way. The Préludes are all recognizably Debussyan, yes; but in each he takes a particular idea and explores it in a way that is all the more intense for the brevity of the form. There is an “Hommage to S Pickwick, Esq., P.P.M.P.C.”  There is “Général Lavine—eccentric.”[2] “Brouillards.” “Feuilles mortes.” “Les sons et les parfums tournent dans l’air du soir.” (I think most people would agree that the sort of writer inclined to write something along the lines of “Les sons et les parfums tournent dans l’air du soir” would be unlikely also to come up with something Dickensian. When I say “most people would agree” I mean not that this is necessarily right but that this is the impression given by the corpora of short stories that come our way.) So each time I listened to the CD, to the dazzling stylistic versatility Gieseking brought to the pieces, gave me a way of thinking about how writing could work.

Months went by. Crowds gathered around Whiteread’s House. House was demolished. The president of Rwanda was assassinated. The name Juvénal Habyaramina went on the whiteboard. A reporter called in from Kigali; people were being hacked to death with machetes. I asked if he was all right and he said he thought so.

Years went by. Whiteread’s Holocaust Memorial was unveiled in Vienna in October 2000. Nameless Library shows a cast of a cube of shelves of books with the spines facing in. We don’t know the titles or authors, we can’t see a page.

It seemed to me that most of the time, when we read a book, when we can see the page, it’s immediately perspicuous: if our eyes have access to the text they have access to meaning. Most of the books we encounter are in the clear light of English, or some other language we already know. But maybe we don’t always want that. At some point, when The Last Samurai became my first book to be published, I went to Amsterdam to publicize it, and went to the Van Gogh Museum. All these pieces of paint and board and canvas had once been in a room with a poor crazy guy, just as the pages of my book had once been in a room with a poor crazy girl. Later, in London, I came across a lot of Dutch paperbacks at Waterstones, including the letters of Van Gogh: Vincent Van Gogh: Een leven in brieven. And I somehow had to have it, though I did not know a word of Dutch. It seemed as though the meaning rose from the text like the drowned cathedral sortant peu à peu de la brume:


eindelijk de Sterrennacht, in de nacht geschilderd onder een gaslantaren.  De hemel is blauwgroen, het wateris koningsblauw, de grond is mauve. De stad is blauw en violet, het gaslicht geel en de weerkaatsingen zijn roodgoud, afnemend tot bronsgroen. Op het blauwgroene veld van de hemel de Grote Beer, die groen en rozeschittert, een schittering waarvan de bescheiden glans constrasteert met het krachtige goud van het gaslicht


We see a lot of words that are a little like words we know, mainly color words, a few others. So we think we get Starry Night, night, under, gas lantern, blue-green, water, royal blue, ground, mauve, city, blue, violet, gaslight, yellow, red-gold, bronze-green, blue-green, field, of the sky, the Great Bear, green, pink, contrasts, gold, gaslight.

And because we think we can make these out, we can work out a few others from context: de and het must be the, een must be a, en must be and. The reader who knows some German will pick out more words: eindelijk = endlich = finally, Hemel = Himmel = sky, and so on, and this too is moving, the fact that intelligibility always depends on the accidents of where we began and where we have been is suddenly out in the open. (And maybe it’s even more moving for a reader with a Dutch surname that was brought to North America 400 years ago, a reader whose native language is an accident of beautifully accomplished assimilation.)

For the English reader, it’s as if these words for color don’t simply pick out the colors picked out by our words, it’s as if they pick out the colors of Van Gogh, the colors seen by that crazy guy. So it’s moving to see these words that are different from ours, and different, often, in having a diphthong where we have a simple vowel, blauw, groen, rood, goud, and even more so when these are part of a compound (blauwgroen, bronsgroen). So there’s the feeling that it is nice to leave them there, and maybe that we don’t want to decipher—it’s nice to have this marker of distance.

Years later I discovered a website which presented the letters of Van Gogh in facsimile, transcription, and translation, and it turned out this magical letter had in fact been written to his brother in French. That did not necessarily lessen its likeness to a cathedral sortant peu à peu de la brume.

This seems to take us a long way from Gieseking’s recording of Debussy’s La cathédrale engloutie. But these were some of the reasons the piece mattered to me then and matters now.



[1] “Would Gieseking undergo a sort of purgatory? There would be nothing surprising in that, for he constructed on records a sort of Pantheon of the piano …”“I never do technical exercises. I consider these in general to be completely superfluous …” (Neither of these lines is anywhere to be found in the English, nor is much of the English to be found in the French or German.)

[2] First 11 bars “Dans le style et le Mouvement d’un Cake-Walk,” bar 12, pp, “Spirituel et discret.


Helen DeWitt is the author of The Last Samurai (unrelated to the better-known film with Tom Cruise), Lightning Rods, Some Trick, and The English Understand Wool. She lives in Berlin.