Diepenbrock composed his Carmen saeculare in behest of the Royal Choral Society Mastreechter Staar. It was intended as a compulsory work in the mixed choirs category at the international choral competition that the society organised in July 1901. The text is a poem with many strophes by Horace (65-8 BC) glorifying the city of Rome and its patron deities Apollo and Diana. Diepenbrock had already discussed it with his friend Charles Smulders in the summer of 1900. This hymn, written in 17 BC at the request of Emperor Augustus for the celebration of the traditional Roman centenary, seemed a suitable subject for the occasion. However, on 7 January 1901 he had not yet succeeded in setting the text to music:
Whether it is the metre of the verse, or at the moment I am so devoid of music I do not know, but the result is nil, nothing but pallid themes and not what I expect from myself. (BD III:255)
Diepenbrock was at the point of handing back the assignment. But two weeks later he obviously found inspiration, given the date of the composition: 22 January – 3 February 1901.
Diepenbrock brought up the problems he initially faced in a letter he wrote more than five years later to his colleague, the composer Philip Loots:
All in all it is very difficult and actually impossible to set ancient strophes to music polyphonically, if one does not want to do the metrical and rhythmical composition injustice, in other words turn the poem into prose. Our modern rhythms are only suitable for accentuated poetry and not for “quantity” of the ancient strophe. […] When composing the Carmen Saeculare, I did my best to steer a middle course, but to an expert on ancient metre and rhythm it must be awful. (BD V:233-234)
The friction Diepenbrock observed between maintaining the classical metrical foot and converting the word accent pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables into a contemporary rhythm, has been solved entirely in his setting of the Carmen saeculare.
In programme notes Diepenbrock explained how he had translated the performance practice from the age of Horace into the setup of his composition:
The song was sung by 27 boys and the same number of girls. Both deities are invoked 3 times. Apollo as god of the sun, healer and prophet. Diana as goddess of birth (Ilithyia, Genetyllis) and goddess of the moon. They are entreated to ensure that the Roman people prosper, that the Roman power expands and continues, that the fruits of the earth flourish, that there is purity of heart for the young and peace of mind for the elderly. Most likely the poet intended his poem as antiphonal song, as customary in the religious hymns of the ancient. So the strophes addressed to Apollo were sung by the boys, those to Diana by the girls, in the others the two groups joined forces. Conform this concept, the composer has set the strophes for male, female or mixed choir depending on their content.
By setting three strophes for male voices alone and two for only female voices, Diepenbrock introduced variation in the sound of this large-scale composition. The four-part division in these strophes contributes to the grand allure of the Carmen saeculare.
Diepenbrock considered the first strophe an introduction. The second strophe presents the main theme, which returns four times, each time with the voices in unison. Other themes also connect the strophes. The setting is mainly homophonic with often surprising harmonies that make huge demands on the musicians. The passages in which the bass part acts as an organ point with long sustained notes or with repeated notes only, have an unusual effect.
Reception of the work
At the competition in Maastricht Diepenbrock was one of the nine members of the international panel judging the four mixed choirs (all from Belgium) that had entered this category. Diepenbrock ascertained that the Latin text and ancient Roman subject matter formed no obstacle:
It was curious that half of the choral societies […] consisted of factory workers and such like and that these folk sang the Carmen S. with enormous enthusiasm. (BD III:322)
The first performance in Amsterdam by Klein-Koor a Cappella conducted by Anton Averkamp took place in the New Lutheran Church on 22 December 1901. Daniël de Lange praised Diepenbrock’s
exceptional talent for writing melodies in all parts and
feeling for sound effects. (BD III:629)
In response to a performance by the Madrigal Society conducted by Sem Dresden in the Recital Hall of the Concertgebouw on 11 February 1918, Matthijs Vermeulen expounded the following view:
Like Diepenbrock has sung the praises of the invisible world, God and his eternity in his Te Deum, he appears to have glorified the visible earth, her deities and her infinity in the Carmen Saeculare by Horace. In Diepenbrock’s oeuvre I would consider the Te Deum and the Carmen Saeculare two equal counterparts. The two have in common the splendid jubilation, the majestic sound, the immensity of the intonation. Indeed, what the Te Deum is for the Catholic Church, the Carmen Saeculare was for the Rome of Augustus: invocation and worship of the Almighty Gods. Also, Diepenbrock is the artist to transform both, the Te Deum and the Carmen, into living and real manifestations. (BD IX:575)
Interestingly, Diepenbrock’s Carmen saeculare was included in the programme for the celebration of the 700th anniversary of the University of Naples. At the final event on 6 May 1924, the work was performed at the ancient forum of Pompeii by the choir of the Theatre San Carlo, enlarged by students from the university, the Conservatory of Naples and other art academies. The large choir, dressed in robes after Roman statues, stood on the steps of the temple of Jupiter. The temple was decorated with garlands around and in between the columns and festoons of roses (see illustration). All of this was – so the reports say – illuminated by the last rays of the setting sun. The many thousands in the audience were noisy beforehand, but immediately went quiet when conductor Giuseppe Papa had come on stage and listened attentively. The thundering applause and cheering after the final chord continued until the last strophes were encored.