A grand commemoration was scheduled for 15 July 1906 to mark the 300th anniversary of the birth of the most famous Dutch painter, Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn. Since the foundation of the “Committee for the celebration of the third centenary of Rembrandt’s birth” at the beginning of 1905, Diepenbrock had been a member. At the end of January the first meeting took place and in February the decision was made to organise an “edifying folk festival” for the entire population of Amsterdam. (BD IV:548) Newly composed music was to sing the praises of Rembrandt. Besides Diepenbrock, who was asked to write a piece for choir and orchestra, Zweers and Mengelberg were requested to collaborate. In April a circular was published explaining the plans for a wide range of events, such as the opening of the new Nachtwacht-zaal (Night Watch hall) in the Rijksmuseum on Rembrandts birthday and the placing of a memorial on his grave in the Western Church. The wish-list also included the publication of a good Dutch biography and a Bible illustrated with etches by Rembrandt; in order to realise these plans, citizens were asked for financial support. The response was such that, at Diepenbrock’s suggestion, at the meeting of 28 October 1905 the decision could be made to purchase the Rembrandt House.
The text for Diepenbrock’s composition was to be written by fellow committee member Lodewijk van Deyssel. However, in December he announced that he was backing out and would invite several poets to write something before 25 January 1906, from which Diepenbrock could take his pick (see BD V:61). The composer chose a poem by P.H. van Moerkerken, on condition that the poet would agree to omit a number of verses
that were less suited for the composition. (BD V:86) A few days later Diepenbrock let slip to his friend Hondius van den Broek that he feared his composition would become
a fabrication. This resulted in a discussion that is a striking example of Hondius’ positive influence on Diepenbrock. Hondius took a stand against his remark:
Yes, you can say whatever you like about “occasional works”, but I would like to know where a more worthy “occasion” could be found in the Netherlands than a tribute to Rembrandt. And if you can be inspired by Vondel and Cologne, I do not see why Amsterdam and Rembrandt would be any less inspiring! I have not seen any of Moerkerken’s verses, but what do they matter in the end? I think it is really a bit unworthy of you to say that you can only produce a fabrication for a Rembrandt festival. And – I do not think it is in keeping with the admiration I have heard you express for R. What does it matter that you are not sympathetic towards the evening on which it takes place - you who have the gift to be able to sing the praises of what you admire, you are not allowed to fall short of yourself.” (BD V:90)
Diepenbrock’s reaction gives some clarity as to what was needed to inspire him:
Just a few words to thank you for your encouragement. Although the case is a different one. It has nothing to do with Rembr. The question is just what personal “relationship” do I have with M.’s poem. […] Literarily I think it is very good, but the tones, which in deeper sense would or should evoke other tones in me, are not there […]. (BD V:91)
He wrote this on 12 February 1906. It would take until 11 March for the inspiration to come. On 11 May he completed the piano score and on 1 July the orchestral score, which required hours of intensive writing, sometimes as many as 9 hours a day. (BD V:165)
Outline of the composition
In Diepenbrock’s Hymne aan Rembrandt (Hymn to Rembrandt) for soprano, female choir and orchestra turns and chord progression are used that are also found in his Te Deum (RC 39) and Im grossen Schweigen (RC 67), works that were both performed in May of that same year. At that time Diepenbrock was particularly busy with the preparations for the premiere of the symphonic song.
The extensive orchestral introduction is built on a three-note motive (a descending second and a descending minor second), which in the vocal section is linked to the words “O Rembrandt”. At the beginning of the piece the motive is played in a low register by divided strings, accompanied by a soft timpani roll. Gradually it develops into longer melodies in higher registers. Only after a carefully built up climax, the first collective forte is reached in m. 65. Here, for just a moment, the melody emerges in the 6/4 metre with which Diepenbrock referred to Amsterdam in Vondels vaart naar Agrippine (Vondel’s Voyage to Agrippine, RC 64) by quoting a passage from his Rey van Amsterdamsche maegden (Choral Song of the Amsterdam Virgins, RC 30) – a self-quotation of a self-quotation. After two measures in a march tempo the piece builds up again “with ever increasing rapture” to more expansive melodies that should be played “with the greatest enthusiasm”, culminating in a three-part canonical passage in C major by the trumpets. The cornerstones of their upward melody form a broken triad. Then, after more than seven minutes the solo soprano enters, whose part has been tailored to the voice of Aaltje Noordewier-Reddingius.
The solo part comprises all of the 11 four-line strophes of van Moerkerken’s poem that Diepenbrock had selected. Where the poet mentions
Een schuttersstoet die in ’t namiddagglansen
Naar buiten trad,
Met trom en vaandel, met musket en lansen
Optrekkend door Uw Amstelstad
(A parade of gunmen that in the glow of the late afternoon
With a drum and a banner, with a musket and lances
Advancing through your city on the Amstel)
in strophe 5, the composer uses word painting: we hear trumpet calls and rhythmic figures in the percussion. Diepenbrock quotes the Dutch national anthem Wilhelmus van Nassouwe – the opening line is used as an instrumental counterpoint to the melody in the voice and its continuation “Een Prinse van Oranje ben ik, vrij onverveerd” (Prince of Orange am I, free and fearless) for the conclusion of this section of text. In contrast to this, the setting of the following strophe evoking in words the image of the painting De staalmeesters (The Syndicts) is sedate.
The way Diepenbrock has the female choir enter in six-part division at the beginning of the tenth strophe of the Hymne aan Rembrandt, has resulted in two pages that are among the most unique and finest in his oeuvre. Beginning with the third altos, the choral parts start the “O Rembrandt” motive at one-measure intervals, each time a step higher in successive thirds (f#–a–c–e–g–bb, the last note sung by the soloist). The accompanying quaver movement in the orchestra adds additional notes to the resulting chords, such as the hard-diminished minor ninth chord g-b-db-f-ab.
When the solo soprano has finished the complete text, the female choir, now divided into 4 parts, sings the strophes 10 and 11. In the harmony there is a noteworthy chord progression of G-flat–D–A-flat that every time accompanies the words “schoonheid” (beauty) and “godlijk licht” (glorious light). The composition ends with a fanfare of ascending broken triads, similar to the conclusion of the orchestral introduction.
The Hymne aan Rembrandt was the finale of the festive programme in the Stadsschouwburg (City Theatre) on 16 July 1906, in cooperation with the Concertgebouworkest. After the orchestral overture Saskia by Bernard Zweers, conducted by Mengelberg, the third act of Vondel’s Joseph in Dothan was performed with scenery and costumes designed by the painter and etcher Marius Bauer. Then there was the music Willem Mengelberg had composed inspired by twenty of Rembrandt’s etches, which were projected during the performance. Johan Wagenaar conducted his symphonic poem Saul en David (Saul and David). Willem Royaards and Rika Hopper recited the Ode aan Rembrandt (Ode to Rembrandt) by Jac. van Looy and sections from the tragedy Medea by Jan Six were performed with scenery that was also designed by Bauer.
For the presentation of Diepenbrock’s composition the organisation also followed a theatrical concept. Only Aaltje Noordewier-Reddingius was visible on the stage, dressed in a long, white gown in a beam of soft blue rays of light, against a backdrop of purple and scarlet red with a cornflower blue banner. The female choir (members of the Toonkunst Choir and Klein Koor a Cappella) sang from the wings. At their entry the backcloth opened and Rembrandt’s studio appeared with his design for the Night Watch. An angel with a branch of a palm tree stood by the empty chair of the master.
The acoustics in the theatre were so unfavourable that the editor of the magazine Weekblad voor muziek, Hugo Nolthenius, announced that he would refrain from reviewing the three new compositions. Diepenbrock also considered the performance invalidated. On 26 March 1908 the piece was performed a second time, now in the Concertgebouw, conducted by Diepenbrock himself. The soloist was Johanna van Linden van den Heuvell, who also performed abroad under the artist name Tilia Hill. The composer was so impressed with the singer’s execution that he gave her the copy of the piano score from which she had sung.