Diepenbrock composed his Berceuse for mezzo-soprano, cello and piano in October 1912 as a present for his friends Gérard and Julie Hekking-Cahen on the occasion of the birth of their daughter Françoise. A few months earlier, on 25 June, Hekking – since 1904 the leader of the cellos in the Concertgebouw Orchestra – had given an excellent performance of the solo in the last movement of Diepenbrock’s incidental music to Vondel’s Gijsbrecht van Aemstel (RC 108). In 1909 his wife Julie had premiered Mandoline (Mandolin, RC 99). The couple had a cordial relationship with Diepenbrock and his wife.
At the suggestion of Elisabeth, Diepenbrock first attempted to write an instrumental lullaby. When that did not work out, he was inspired by a poem (without title) from van Lerberghe’s La chanson d’Ève (The Song of Eve) which Johanna Raphael-Jongkindt had sent him not long before. On 26 October he started a sketch and four days later, on 30 October, he had completed the composition. On 1 November a neat copy was delivered to the Hekkings as a present. They were so delighted with it, that they visited the composer to play through the work that very same evening. It has not been documented whether or when they performed it in public. Possibly the performance in Zaal Heystee in Amsterdam on 8 May 1916 by the mezzo-soprano Berthe Seroen (1882-1957), the cellist Marix Loevensohn (1880-1943) and the pianist Hans Franco Mendes (1890-1951) was its actual premiere.
Why in the meantime Diepenbrock had not presented the Berceuse to others to perform, was no doubt because he considered the song an occasional work. He wrote in a letter to Johanna Jongkindt:
Jo what you say about the Berceuse is true, it is a piece of craftsmanship. (BD VIII:82)
The mystery of life
The poem expresses the advice the Lord gave to the human child in the earthly paradise: Walk through the garden of the angels, full of light and innocence, where apples and roses shine; it is yours, it is your kingdom. But pick only the flowers, leave the fruit on the branch. Do not look for the mystery of life. Do not listen to the enticing voices of the snake or the sirens, or to the lure from the dark boscages of love. Remain ignorant, do not think. Sing! All knowledge is useless, just take pleasure in beauty. Let it be the whole truth for you.
Diepenbrock considered the poem charming, sonorous and
not at all unmusical. (BD VIII:54) With his setting in a 6/8 metre, flowing melodies and harmonies that flexibly adapt to the lightness and seriousness of the text, he turned it into an appealing lullaby that has maintained its charm to this very day. It concludes with a long hummed garland. Especially the version with only piano accompaniment (RC 112) was popular, but the original setting was also performed in public, e.g. by Elisabeth Simons (1886-1971), the cellist Charles van Isterdael (1873-1962) and the pianist Hans Goemans at a special soiree for the Dutch Red Cross and the committee for Belgian war victims in the Royal French Theatre in The Hague on 3 December 1917.