Diepenbrock got to know the French writer and poet Pierre Louÿs (1870-1925) through his novel Aphrodite, moeurs antiques (Aphrodite, Ancient Manners), which was published in the literary magazine Mercure de France in 1896. He did not think much of its content, which he considered
rather smutty. (BD V:256) It was Claude Debussy’s Trois chansons de Bilitis from 1897-1898 that introduced Diepenbrock to Louÿs’ short prose sketches (The Songs of Bilitis), first printed in 1894. Although the author had published the texts as if they were translations of ancient Greek originals, it soon became clear that this impression was based on a cleverly chosen deception, which was not even picked up immediately by the experts. In 1910 Diepenbrock commented on this collection to Willem Kloos:
It is a mystification and in the depiction of oriental prostitution the Parisian promenader clearly shows his true colours as a ‘pitheek’. (BD VI:297)
As Diepenbrock used the word ‘pitheek’ (Greek: pithēkos = monkey) for – in his view – insolent and rude boasters, his opinion is obvious: according to him, Louÿs had merely aimed to cause a scandal with his publication. Nevertheless, on 8 November 1912 he finally purchased a complete edition of the texts,
albeit actually more out of interest in Debussy. (BD VIII:55) It was not until around 1920 that he briefly took an interest in one of the prose fragments.
The text of Rose dans la nuit (Roses in the Night) is an evocation of nightfall, when Bilitis, wandering with her lover under the twinkling stars, surrounded by the scent of roses, expresses her feelings. The text might have reminded Diepenbrock of the brief pleasure that his affair with Johanna Jongkindt (1882-1945) had brought him ten years earlier; however, the mature composer may have been attracted to this text by the first line of the second paragraph:
Les petites étoiles brillent assez pour les petites ombres que nous sommes.
(The small stars shine sufficiently for us, small shadows that we are.)
Nevertheless, one gets the feeling that Diepenbrock’s compositions from the past prevented him from conjuring up such emotions again based on Louÿs’ rather too ‘simple’ text. Both his own masterful musical evocations in Die Nacht (The Night, RC 106) and Lydische nacht (Lydian Night, RC 118), and his depiction of the humble human race versus nature in Nietzsche’s Im grossen Schweigen (In the Great Silence, RC 67) stood in the way of a recapitulation in miniature of these themes.
Jaap van Benthem