Amid many obligations Alphons Diepenbrock wrote to Johanna Raphael-Jongkindt at the end of October 1913: “This week I have also composed a work for male choir that I had promised a conductor of a Liedertafel.” (BD VIII:262) He was referring to Ecce quomodo moritur, which he had written on 27 October. The piece was performed on 10 December at a concert by the Royal Liedertafel Apollo for the silver jubilee of its director Fred. J. Roeske (1868-1961).
The text Diepenbrock based the composition on reminds man that he is to expect the reward for rightful deeds in the afterlife, not during life on earth, where nobody pays attention to the death of the righteous man:
Ecce quomodo moritur vir justus, et nemo percipit corde.
Viri justi tolluntur, et nemo considerat.
A facie iniquitatis sublatus est justus, et erit in pace memoria ejus.
In pace factus est locus ejus, et in Sion habitatio ejus.
Behold how the righteous man dies, and no one understands.
Righteous men are taken away, and no one considers.
The righteous man has been taken away from present iniquity, and his memory shall be in peace.
In peace is his place, and in Sion is his homestead.
In the Middle Ages these verses – without the word “vir” (= man) in the first line – formed a unity in some religious centres,1 but in the Roman Catholic liturgy they are spread over the three-line response Ecce quomodo moritur justus, which is sung on Holy Saturday after the sixth reading of the Second Nocturn2, and a one-line antiphon of the Third Nocturn (see the Liber usualis, p. 767 and 769). Grammatically the word “justus” (= righteous) is undefined and can refer to Christ or a believer who has died. The combination “vir justus”, which cannot be found in earlier sources, is most likely by Diepenbrock himself.3 It could be a subtle reference to his friend W.G. (Gijs) Hondius van den Broek, who had committed suicide on 12 September 1913. In that case Diepenbrock’s Ecce quomodo moritur could be considered a musical In Memoriam.
Intense but sober
In his composition Diepenbrock did not adhere to the order of the text and he ignored its responsorial character. For example, the opening (mm. 1-9) is not repeated at the end, but already reappears in m. 20, a semitone lower in B major and shortened by two measures. By going back to the slow Maestoso of the beginning, Diepenbrock interrupts a più mosso section. The melodic contour of the main theme with its small compass (d–e-flat–d–c) also marks the end of the piece (mm. 50-67).
The work is intense but sober and, with the exception of the passages containing imitation between the top and bottom pair of voices in the faster section, completely homophonic. It is built up of segments with strong contrasts in metre and tempo; their length is determined by the text. The overall character of Ecce quomodo moritur is recitative. However, in the passages where the prospect of peace in which the memory of the righteous man rests and the future Zion where he is to live is held out, the voice leading is explicitly melodic.
After the premiere Diepenbrock made six alterations, “both in the interest of the performers and myself”. He informed Roeske of this, so the score and the parts could be changed. (BD VIII:284-285) On 15 may 1916 Diepenbrock brought Ecce quomodo moritur to Roeske’s attention again, because he considered the work more suitable for the concert hall than his Tantum ergo sacramentum (RC 53). However, the work was never performed again during the composer’s lifetime.
1 According to at least one English source, see Antiphonaire monastique, XIIIe siècle, codex F. 160 de la Bibliothèque de la Cathédrale de Worcester = Paléographie Musicale I/12 (Bern: H. Lang 1971; reprint of Tournai 1922 edition).
2 Tomás Luis de Victoria, Carlo Gesualdo and many others have used this text in their compositions for Holy Saturday.
3 The only other appearance is in A. Huizinga, Woorden en gedachten: elfduizend uitdrukkingen, spreekwoorden en citaten (Zutphen: W.J. Thieme 1950), p. 88: “Ecce quomodo moritur vir justus et nemo percipit corde. Behold how the righteous man dies and no one understands. Words from an old sacred song.”