RC 62* Des Menschen Seele gleicht dem Wasser

  • Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von
  • vocal male quartet
  • July 1, 1903 - July 31, 1903

The little sketchbook C-3 contains a setting for male vocal quartet of the beginning of Goethe’s Gesang der Geister über den Wassern (Song of the Spirits Over the Waters). The fragment comprises the first three lines of text:

Des Menschen Seele gleicht dem Wasser:
Vom Himmel kommt es, zum Himmel steigt es
und wieder nieder zur Erde muss es, ewig wechselnd.

(The soul of man is as the water:
From heaven it comes, and to heaven it rises
And downward to earth it must come again, forever changing.)

In the rhymeless poem of six strophes of varying length Goethe expresses the concept of reincarnation: like water, the soul of man goes through an eternal cycle between heaven and earth. Diepenbrock linked the concept of the soul of man to a descending chromatic line, the water is symbolised by an undulating motion. However, he did not get any further than the chord with which the second strophe could open.

The sketch is on p. 7 of the notebook in which the composer started the setup for the Postlude of the symphonic poem Vondels vaart naar Agrippine (Vondel’s Voyage to Agrippine, RC 64) on 25 February 1903. Page 8 also has a bearing on this work. Then there is one page of sketches, followed by a complete neat copy of the quartet for mixed voices De groote hond en de kleine kat (The Large Dog and the Small Cat, RC 63), which Diepenbrock composed on 31 July and 1 August 1903.

Diepenbrock’s desire to write a new work for vocal quartet can be linked to him attending a performance of the Rey van burchtsaeten (Choral Song of the Burghers, RC 28) and Den uil (The Owl, RC 56) by the Zalsman quartet in Haarlem on 20 July 1903. After attempting to set the serious Gesang der Geister über den Wassern to music, he must have decided to turn to its opposite: the humoristic text by Albert Verwey about the never-ending bickering between a dog and a cat.

Ton Braas