Diepenbrock got acquainted with Goethe’s poetry around the age of 15. The author plays an important part throughout his oeuvre. In 1910 Diepenbrock called Goethe
a great genius in a letter to the poet Willem Kloos. (BD VII:98) The first settings of texts by Goethe, such as the ballads Der König in Thule (The King in Thule) and Mignon (RC 12), date from the time when Diepenbrock was a student. Both songs were published in 1889 and dedicated to Cateau Esser, a singing teacher the composer greatly admired at the time.
The ballad Der König in Thule, known as Gretchen’s song from Faust (part 1; see RC 140), has been set to music many times since the eighteenth century. However, the ballad – situated on the mythical island of Thule, the furthest point Greek ships could reach – antedates Goethe’s tragedy and is written as a traditional folk song. In his old age the King of Thule realises that he can’t take the golden cup that his beloved left behind with him. After drinking from the cup for one last time, he throws it into the sea.
Diepenbrock set Der König in Thule to music in the summer of 1886, but in view of publication, he revised the song. The harmony and treatment of the text of Der König in Thule underwent substantial changes. These revisions demonstrate how much he was influenced by Richard Wagner in those early days, as he mentioned four years later in a letter. (BD I:468) In programme notes of a later date Diepenbrock called the opening motive of the introduction, which plays an important part in the song, a
recollection motive that expresses the old King’s state of mind. (BD V:724) A climax is reached in the lengthy interlude between the fifth and sixth verse, where the piano illustrates the text and takes on orchestral dimensions.
Following publication there were several reviews in German periodicals. The critic of the authoritative music magazine Neue Zeitschrift für Musik (E.Rch.) speaks of
Noblesse des Ausdrucks auf einer hohen Stufe (elegance of expression on a high level) and a refined taste of the composer, a passage Diepenbrock quotes with some pride in a letter to his father from 1891. (BD I:285) Although the critic remarks that the many modulations hinder the audience’s reception of the work, he is positive about the songs:
Da sich der Componist sichtbar mit den besten Mustern bekannt gemacht hat, so lässt sich noch manches Schöne aus seiner Feder erwarten, wenn er nach Überwindung der Sturm und Drangperiode mit grösserer Unbefangenheit und Klarheit im Ausdruck zu schreiben vermag.1
(As the composer has clearly studied the best models, we may expect many more beautiful things to come from his pen, when, after he has outgrown his ‘Sturm und Drang’ period, he is able to write with more detachment and clarity.)
Diepenbrock orchestrated Der König in Thule in 1907 (RC 78). He also incorporated the song in his Muziek bij Goethe’s Faust (Incidental Music for Goethe’s Faust) from 1918 (RC 141).
1 Neue Zeitschrift für Musik 58 (1891), 251; see BD I:534.