Es war ein alter König (There was an Old King) is the only German song Diepenbrock set to music during the eight years he lived in ’s-Hertogenbosch, where he gave Latin and Greek lessons. For the third and last time in his oeuvre Diepenbrock based a vocal work on a ballad by Heinrich Heine. Although the song dates from June and July 1890, it was not until January 1904 that it was premiered by the baritone Gerard Zalsman (1871-1949).
Es war ein alter König has been transmitted in three different keys. In 1905 the song was published in a version for baritone (or alto) in e minor, the key in which the work had been conceived by Diepenbrock; this version had already become known through Zalsman. The autograph copy in e-flat, which was most likely made for the alto Cato Loman, is from an unknown date. In October 1902 Diepenbrock rewrote the song, this time in f-sharp, for his friend and former pupil J.C. (Johannes) Hol, son of the composer and conductor Richard Hol. Hol suggested reviewing the song in an article on ballads he was writing (BD IV:30), but the composer rejected the idea as the work had not been published yet. (BD IV:31)
Besides Gerard Zalsman, who continued to perform the song regularly, the alto Pauline de Haan-Manifarges (1872-1954) also included the work in her repertory. After one of her performances in February 1905, an enthusiastic critic from the Weekblad voor Muziek (Music Weekly) ventured to predict:
Diepenbrock is a first class musical genius and one day he will certainly be recognised as such all over the world. (BD IV:532)
With the direction “Freie Declamation, ohne Tempo” (Free Declamation, without Tempo) at the beginning of the song, Diepenbrock gives the musicians plenty of room to render the ballad text expressively. In three four-line strophes – each with its own mood – Heine narrates how an old, dejected king took a young lady to be his wife. A handsome page carried the young queen’s silk train. The poet then asks: do you know how the old song goes? It sounds sweet and at the same time sad: they both had to die, because they loved each other far too much. Diepenbrock gives his melody an archaic character by using ascending and descending fifths. The charm of the young lady and the page is depicted by major thirds. The words “süss” (sweet) and “trüb” (sad) are simply given a major and minor chord respectively. Nevertheless, the harmony of the composition is quite rich.
This short and concise song soon became so popular that it needed to be reprinted several times.
Désirée Staverman & Ton Braas