Diepenbrock’s interest in Joost van den Vondel, the greatest Dutch poet from the Golden Era, was kindled at an early age. Both of his parents were members of a society that came together to read plays. Meetings regularly took place in the Diepenbrock residence. The cultivated group had a broad interest: besides classical authors such as Schiller, Goethe, Lessing and Shakespeare, it also explored contemporary French writers such as Dumas and Hugo in the original language. However, its favourites were Bredero and Vondel, whose poetry Diepenbrock was brought up with. The society was founded by a cousin of Diepenbrock’s mother, J.A. Alberdingk Thijm, one of the leaders of the Catholic revival and the driving force of the Vondel renaissance that took place in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. Thijm wrote popularising articles, evoking images of Amsterdam at the time the Golden Era, with Joost van den Vondel as main character. Thijm’s poems and novels inspired the young Diepenbrock’s love for “the beautiful and famous city” (as Vondel called it).
At the age of 25, after having completed his studies in Latin and Greek, Diepenbrock accepted a position as a teacher at the municipal grammar school in the quiet provincial town of ’s-Hertogenbosch. In his correspondence from this period, we read that he was often homesick for Amsterdam and his circle of friends consisting of painters and literati. He frequently travelled to the capital to attend special concerts. To stay in touch, he and his friends paid each other visits that often lasted more than one day. From 10 to 12 July 1892 Diepenbrock, Albert Verwey and his wife Kitty van Vloten stayed with Herman and Wies Gorter in Amersfoort. No doubt Vondel’s work was mentioned, as at that time Verwey was busy with the upcoming publication of Een inleiding tot Vondel (An Introduction to Vondel). On 6 September Diepenbrock asked him in a letter:
How is Vondel getting on? In this context it is not surprising that Diepenbrock set Vondel’s Rey van burchtsaeten (Choral Song of the Burghers) for choir a cappella soon after that.
On 14 September 1892, the beginning of his fifth school year in ’s-Hertogenbosch, Diepenbrock wrote to his friend Andrew de Graaf:
I have started a very beautiful work, if all goes well, it will be neither large nor long, but pleasant and small. (BD I:381) This is the only reference to the genesis of the Rey van burchtsaeten, apart from a remark in a letter from Diepenbrock to De Graaf, dated 29 November 1892:
Until this week I was still busy with musical issues. (BD I:408) Diepenbrock’s original manuscript of the Rey van burchtsaeten has not been transmitted, but the neat copy has survived; according to the date given at the end, it was made between 26 January 1893 and 25 September 1894.
Meanwhile, Diepenbrock had started on the Rey van clarissen (Choral Song of the Poor Clares, RC 30) and the Rey van Amsterdamsche maegden (Choral Song of the Amsterdam Virgins, RC 31) from Vondel’s Gijsbrecht van Aemstel. The Rey van edelingen (Choral Songs of the Noblemen, RC 33) is the following large-scale composition in Diepenbrock’s oeuvre. Before expounding on the genesis of these four works, we will first give a summary of Gijsbrecht van Aemstel.
Synopsis of Gijsbrecht van Aemstel
Vondel’s historic play is situated in the Middle Ages. It was inspired by Virgil’s Aeneid, which describes the downfall of Troy. Amsterdam, which for a long time has been besieged by troops from the nearby town of Haarlem and Kennemerland, breathes a sigh of relief when the enemy suddenly retreats in disarray. The reason for this, so an abbot has heard, is a disagreement between the leaders. This is confirmed when questioning a captured spy of the enemy. He points out a ship full of brushwood – valuable winter fuel – which has been left behind in the rush. Elated and triumphant the Amsterdamers haul the vessel, which is shaped like a giant sea horse, into the city walls and start making preparations for the Christmas celebrations, as they were called on to do by the Rey van Amsterdamsche maeghden that concludes the first act. At the end of the second act the congregation goes to church while singing the Rey van edelingen. Meanwhile, the lout turns out to be the infamous Trojan horse: at night enemy soldiers creep out of it and together with the stealthily returned army, they take the unsuspecting citizens by surprise. The fight begins. In the Rey van clarissen nuns sketch the mothers’ grief about the violent deaths of their babies. In act four Badeloch, the wife of Gijsbrecht, is told about the cruel battle that has taken place inside the city walls since the enemy troops have entered by means of deception. She is afraid she will never see her husband again. This is followed by the Rey van burchtsaeten. Badeloch’s fears turn out to be ungrounded; Gijsbrecht returns unharmed. He wants to send away his wife and children and go down with the city, but Archangel Raphael orders him to get into safety with the others in order to lead the glorious resurrection of Amsterdam.
The Rey van burchtsaeten is an ode to the power of the marital bonds for better and for worse:
Waar werd oprechter trouw
Dan tusschen man en vrouw
Ter wereld ooit gevonden?
Twee zielen gloend’ aan een gesmeed
Of saam geschakeld en verbonden
In lief en leed.
Where can truer faithfulness
Than that of husband and wife
Ever be found in the world?
Two burning souls welded to each other
Or linked and joined together
For better and for worse.
The text also expresses the onlooker’s compassion with Badeloch who is desperate about her husband’s fate and it ends with a prayer to God to lighten the burden of the grieving wife.
Setting by Diepenbrock and premiere
Vondel’s text consists of eight six-line strophes. Diepenbrock begins five of the strophes (strophes 1 to 4 and 8) with the theme. With this theme the voice pairs soprano/alto and tenor/bass open the piece and the voice pairs soprano/tenor and alto/bass open the second strophe in mm. 19-21. The strophes 5, 6 and 7 start with a different, less prominent theme that brings together major and minor in one measure. In the sixth and seventh strophe Vondel compares Badeloch’s grieving with the lamenting of the turtle dove on the branch of a dead tree after losing her beloved mate – for the rest of her life. Diepenbrock elaborately expresses this text with long melismas on the word “jammert” (laments), in which both triplet quavers and ‘ordinary’ quavers occur. The passage is reserved for the solo voices. Throughout the work, which consists of 140 measures, chromaticism plays an important role and there is a quick succession of key changes.
The composition makes huge demands on the vocal technique and intonation of both the choir and the soloists. This was evident at the premiere in the Recital Hall of the Amsterdam Concertgebouw by the Klein-Koor a Cappella conducted by Anton Averkamp on 30 May 1894. Diepenbrock’s fiancée Elisabeth de Jong van Beek en Donk wrote in her diary:
On 29 May we went to Amsterdam together and attended the rehearsal, how horrific! I will not easily forget the incredible deception at hearing those dreadful sounds! Nothing was right, it was not in tune, there was no movement in it, the tenor of the quartet of soloists was not present, it was literally a disaster. And what was so awful for me, must have been a hundred times as painful for Fons; he felt his soul being torn apart and there was no more time to rehearse the piece or to take it off the programme. Anyhow, the performance itself was not too bad, but in the interval Fons secretly got the soloists together and rehearsed with them, so that went almost all right and altogether it was bearable and it received a succès d’estime: people heard that something unusual was going on […]. (BD II:185)
This is confirmed by Daniël de Lange’s findings in his review in the newspaper Het Nieuws van den Dag. However, de Lange came to an interesting conclusion:
What struck me, […] is the rich melodic flow in each individual part; in that respect, in this composition I consider Diepenbrock to be one of the few in the Netherlands who have the right outlook on the future of music, notwithstanding whether this work can already be regarded as a ripe work. (BD I:550)
Other performances and revision
Six years later, on 2 February 1900, the Rey van burchtsaeten was performed in the Remonstrant Church in Haarlem at a concert by the Haarlemsch à Cappella Choir conducted by E.F. Bruynsteen. Diepenbrock himself conducted the Vijftiende-eeuwsch bruyloftslied (Fifteenth-Century Wedding Song, RC 10), which was sung by a quartet of soloists: Aaltje Noordewier-Reddingius (soprano), Cato Loman (alto), Jos Tijssen (tenor) and Gerard Zalsman (bass). The programme also included Diepenbrock’s Stabat mater dolorosa for mixed choir (RC 34). Diepenbrock said the following about his experience with the Rey van burchtsaeten:
The conductor is full of enthusiasm and good intentions, but he has not yet got a true understanding of vocal music, he is also very nervous. But hearing the soloists in these things, among others in that one strophe of the Rey “Door deze liefde treurt” (Through this love mourns), invigorated me. (BD III:193)
Diepenbrock only attended the dress rehearsal for the performance in Leiden by the local Toonkunst Choir, conducted by Daniël de Lange on 6 December 1900, as the concert coincided with the premiere in Amsterdam of his two Hymnen an die Nacht (Hymns to the Night, RC 49 and 50).
Meanwhile, on 13 May 1896, the Rey van burchtsaeten had been published by Erven F. Bohn in Haarlem, together with a piano reduction of the other three choral songs from Vondel’s Gijsbrecht van Aemstel. In view of this publication, Diepenbrock revised several parts of his manuscript. After a long production process, part II of the deluxe edition of the Gijsbrecht, with incidental music by both Zweers and Diepenbrock, was published on 26 October 1901 (see RC 30). Because of the space needed for the decorative vignettes by Antoon Derkinderen, Diepenbrock’s choral songs had to be engraved anew. Five years later publisher S.L. van Looy was given permission to incorporate the Rey van burchtsaeten in the Vier Vierstemmige Liederen (Four Four-Part Songs) for choir a cappella, which also included Den uil (The Owl, RC 56), the Vijftiende-eeuwsch bruyloftslied (RC 10) and Christus is opgestanden (Christ has Risen, RC 57). On 14 September 1906 Diepenbrock received a beautiful edition, with which he was very pleased. Elisabeth reported his reaction in her diary:
He rates “Waar werd oprechter trouw” highest. He says it is an entirely new style, a blend of the old Palestrina-Bach school, Wagner and modern orchestration technique. How he ever managed “to pull it of” 14 years ago (he started it on 10 Sept. 1892, the birthday of Toon’s mother) without any tuition, he himself does not understand. (BD V:208)
Thanks to this comment we know when the composition was started after all.
When in 1912 Diepenbrock prepared the score of his Gijsbrecht for a performance of Vondel’s tragedy by the N.V. Het Tooneel of Willem Royaards in the theatre of Amsterdam, he also scrutinised the Rey van burchtsaeten, which was to be sung a cappella by a small ensemble. In some passages he simplified the voice leading. He opened the third strophe with the theme sung merely by the voice pair tenor/bass. The fourth strophe had a different modulation and ended a semitone lower, resulting in a dominant-tonic instead of a third relationship with the following section. Of note was the word painting at the end of the fifth strophe, where the text says marital love is the most powerful cement that “harten bindt, als muren breken / Tot puin in ’t end” (connects hearts, where walls crumble / finally into rubble). Now Diepenbrock ended on a low c-sharp unison in the four voices, with a descending fifth in both the soprano and the bass. In order to make things easier for the soloists, he gave the option of an eight-measure caesura in the “lament” strophe.