RC 39 Te Deum laudamus

  • Milaan, Ambrosius van (Ambrosius of Miland)
  • soloists, two mixed choirs and orchestra
  • September 1, 1897 - December 1, 1897
  • duration ca. 20:00

Already in 1892 Diepenbrock made up his mind to write a Te Deum, but the first sketches do not date until May 1896. He actually wrote the piece between 1 September and 1 December 1897. Notes in two of the manuscripts indicate that Diepenbrock reworked the orchestration between 17 April and 8 June 1901.

The work is for two mixed choirs that sometimes alternate with each other (following the antiphonal setup of the text) and sometimes join forces, or appear in their full eight-voice capacity. Like that of the definite version of the Missa in die festo (RC 27), Diepenbrock’s setup was inspired by the coro spezzato practice in the San Marco in Venice. This explains why he deploys the vocal soloists purely as a quartet. A large orchestra provides the ‘accompaniment’ and – like in Diepenbrock’s symphonic songs – often has an independent role.

The premiere took place in the Amsterdam Concertgebouw on Friday 10 January 1902. It was the final piece in the opening concert of the Three-Day Dutch Music Festival. The soloists were Aaltje Noordewier-Reddingius (soprano), Pauline de Haan-Manifarges (alto), Johan Rogmans (tenor) and Thom Denijs (bass), who was replacing Gerard Zalsman. The Toonkunst Choir Amsterdam and the Concertgebouw Orchestra were conducted by Willem Mengelberg. The press unanimously commended the work highly. Daniël de Lange expressed the general sentiment as follows:

The Te Deum by Diepenbrock [...] may be considered one of the most important works of the modern era. Rich in ideas, which were expressed through the development of several motives, rich in spirit, rich in sound effects of the most beautiful kind, rich in colour, one feels that this work was created, not written. And in the end, that is what it is all about. Right from the start, the artist captures the listener and it is not until the very end that his charm lets go of him. (BD III:641)

Already that same season, on 29 June 1902, a reprise took place in the Great Church in Naarden. It was initiated by Johan Schoonderbeek, conductor of the local branch of the Maatschappij tot Bevordering der Toonkunst (Society for the Stimulation of Music). Through the collaboration of the Toonkunst choirs from Amsterdam and three neighbouring towns, a double choir of 300 singers was formed. Schoonderbeek also had the Concertgebouw Orchestra and the vocal quartet that had already sung the work (this time with Zalsman) at his disposal. The two performances mark Diepenbrock’s final breakthrough in the Netherlands; in her exceptional way the composer and singing teacher Catharina van Rennes (1858-1940) voiced the great respect he enjoyed from his colleagues since then: I thought he was still on do, and indeed, there he has already ascended to si. (BD III:649).

Diepenbrock’s programme notes

In his programme notes for the premiere, Diepenbrock says the following about the text and the melody inextricably linked to it:

The Te Deum laudamus is a hymn of thanksgiving which is traditionally attributed to the Holy Ambrose (340-397), but whose authorship is by no means certain. This mighty poem is written in free verse – rhythmic prose – and it is certainly some of the oldest Christian poetry. The melody to which this poem is sung in the Catholic Church to this very day, is most likely of a still earlier date. (BD III:639)

Diepenbrock used the Gregorian melody – “certainly just as mighty as the text” – literally in two places: in the section starting with the words “Te gloriosus Apostolorum chorus” (three successive lines) and in the section with the phrases “Tu ad liberandum suscepturus hominem” and “Tu devicto mortis aculeo”. There is also a motivic resemblance between the “Te ergo quaesumus” theme of the second part of the composition and the opening of the liturgical Te Deum laudamus. Apart from this – as one can read in a letter that Diepenbrock wrote to his friend J.C. Hol shortly before the premiere – I (sadly) derived nothing from those fantastic melodies. So there is a relationship with Gregorian Chant, but always within the limits of modern music. (BD III:336)

Diepenbrock said about the background of his ideas and the intention of this work:

Like in my other music, the rhythm of the language is the main regulator of the movement. […] Of course it is not intended for the church or for the concert hall, but suppose there was a moment of great thanksgiving for the people […], then it could be used for such a panegyrical thanksgiving. It should then express the outburst of gratitude after victory. (ibid.)

In keeping with the terminology Friedrich Nietzsche developed in Die Geburt der Tragödie aus dem Geiste der Musik (The Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music, 1872), Diepenbrock called his Te Deum dramatic music. He labelled the descending tetrachord, which occurs in the bass from m. 5, the so-called ‘orchestic’ element: It expresses the advance of humanity that, after victory, voices its gratitude, singing in a festive procession. (ibid.)

The composer considered the fanfare-like theme that opens the Te Deum laudamus, which is characterised by a fiery dissonant grace note in m. 3 (the interval ab g dissolves into the consonant ab-f in the following measure), a symbol of internal and external strife. He repeats this theme “as an echo” at the end of the first part. In part two, in which most of the text is a supplication, this theme several times gives this supplication a special accent. According to Diepenbrock, towards the end of the composition the theme sounds as a “climax”, as though it were a “cry”. But when the choir has finally sung its trust in God, the instrumental main theme is purified into pure triads, which form the epilogue to the whole work. (BD III:337)

Festive procession

The first part of Diepenbrock’s setting of the text fully realises his idea of “a festive procession”, introduced by an energetic fanfare (with an accent of pain), supported by an ever repeated descending tetrachord. The soprano melody of the opening line “Te Deum laudamus” (Thee, O God, we praise), sung by both choirs, ascends jubilantly; on the words “Te Dominum confitemur” (We acknowledge Thee to be the Lord) it is the rhythm that highlights the power of the statement. The praise, lavished from all directions by the heavenly host of angels, cherubim and seraphim, is musically depicted by the alternatim use of the choirs.

Several times four solo voices step out of the collectivity, extracting themselves from the multitude, in order to sing essential parts of the text from their own personal, emotional involvement: “Tibi omnes Angeli” (To thee all Angels); the word “Sanctus” – ecstatically sung three times on an alternative setting of the “Te Deum laudamus” entry of the choir; “Pleni sunt caeli et terra majestatis gloriae tuae” (Heaven and earth are full of the Majesty of Thy glory) and “Sanctum quoque Paraclitum Spiritum” (Also the Holy Ghost, the Comforter). Following the threefold “Sanctus”, an orchestral intermezzo, based on the descending tetrachord but now in a higher register, illustrates the never-ending praise of the celestials. Against this backdrop, a drawn-out melody unfolds, first played by the cellos and the violas, then by various combinations of woodwinds in wide register, suggesting an enormous spatiality. After a sudden crescendo, culminating in a dissonant chord played fff by the brass and woodwinds (the ‘pain’ chord of the fanfare theme), the song of praise of the apostles, prophets and martyrs sounds alternately from the right and the left. The choirs join forces when the Church unanimously and worldwide professes God’s majesty.

Diepenbrock’s setting of the praise of the Son and the Holy Ghost is much more intimate. A short instrumental link, again based on the descending tetrachord, leads back to the main key of C major, and the words addressed to Christ the Son of God are sung in the same setting as the very first sentences in which the choir invoked God the Father. This passage is followed by a much-abbreviated repeat of the tetrachord motive in combination with the drawn-out melody (now played by the trumpets and the trombones), in which the dissonant harmony once again draws attention. A strongly delivered “Tu devicto mortis aculeo” (When thou hadst overcome the sharpness of death) is followed by twelve entries on the word “aperuisti” in an ascending sequence, which introduce the ‘message’ that Christ has opened the Kingdom of Heaven where he sits at the right hand of God to all believers. After the last line of text of the first section, in which belief in Christ as future judge is conveyed, the opening fanfare is heard two more times in the distance; then the procession comes to a standstill in prayer, symbolised by a fermata on a dominant-seventh chord.

From supplication to hope and trust

The second part opens with a twenty-measure instrumental Molto adagio that starts sedate, but soon develops emotionally. Then, using the same melodic material, the quartet of soloists prays to the Redeemer for help in the “Te ergo quaesumus”. Choir I expresses the desire to be accepted in glory everlasting; together the two choirs voice the question of the people to save and bless the heritage. This is followed by the orchestra playing a short melody four times in succession, each time a major second higher – a passage that is related to the sequence on the word “aperuisti” in the first part. The line “Et rege eos et extolle illos usque in aeternum” (Govern them and lift them up for ever) leads to an extensive musical paraphrase of the Molto adagio prayer, in which the descending tetrachord comes to the foreground.

After two lines of praise by the choir, the solo voices continue the supplication: “Dignare Domine die isto sine peccato nos custodire.” (Vouchsafe, O Lord, to keep us this day without sin). A new melody in the orchestra aptly expresses these feelings. Then the choirs join in with the phrase “Miserere nostri Domine” (O Lord, have mercy upon us) and the plea for mercy “Fiat misericordia tua super nos” (O Lord, let thy mercy lighten upon us), which is repeated softer, yet more insistently by eight-part choir.

A timpani roll links the final chord of the choirs with the following ‘section’ by the solo voices, expressing the first gleam of hope of redemption with the words “quemadmodum speravimus in Te” (as our trust is in Thee). Suddenly the fanfare motive sounds in the distance and against this the choir intones the same text as the soloists. Then an orchestral intermezzo brings nearer the return of trust in the future, which is finally confirmed in the absolute certainty of the line “In te Domine speravi, non confundar in aeternum” (O Lord, in thee have I trusted, let me never be confounded), sung by both choirs. As the closing words are repeated several times, heavenly vistas open up in the orchestra. After the impressive, unaccompanied final measures of the choir (a literal repeat of the finale of the first part), the composition ends with the opening of the initial fanfare, combined with the descending tetrachord, set against the backdrop of a C major chord that slowly fades away: the panegyric vision dissolves into endless space.


After Les elfes (The Elves, RC 21) and the three choral songs from Vondel’s Gijsbrecht van Aemstel (RC 30, 31 and 33), this is the fifth work in which Diepenbrock employed a large instrumental ensemble. By then he was well aware that orchestral instrumentation is diametrically opposed to the sound ideals he had tried to realise in the organ part of his Missa (RC 27). With all the experience he had gained in the period 1899-1910, when he not only composed his major works for solo voice and orchestra, but also orchestrated the original piano and organ accompaniments of fourteen songs, he continued to revise the orchestration of the Te Deum laudamus. Other more recent compositional achievements also made the composer increasingly critical about the technical execution of this work. When in 1908 Diepenbrock made an entirely new score, he also rewrote most of the vocal parts. He also prescribed how the composition should be performed by adding numerous tempo and execution directions in a way bordering on mannerism. At last he was satisfied:

The composition has remained entirely unchanged, only a few measures have been added here and there; sometimes it was too concise, but the anxious and academic instrumentation and voice-leading have made way for a rich and lively sound. 3 orchestral parts have been added: 3rd Oboe, 4th Trumpet, Double bassoon. This was very necessary indeed. (BD V:571)

Nevertheless, after that the composer would continue to critically review his new score every so often.

Later performances

Two of the performances during Diepenbrock’s lifetime took place abroad. On 14 November 1910 Iwan Fröbe, conductor of the Stern’sche Gesangverein in Berlin, performed the Te Deum in the concert hall of the Singakademie with the Blüthner Orchestra. As the quality of the choir, orchestra and three of the soloists was mediocre, Diepenbrock thought the performance was all right considering the circumstances. (BD VII:67) On 4 April 1912 Willem Mengelberg conducted a program with the Te Deum by the Concertgebouw Orchestra, the Amsterdam Toonkunst Choir and the soloists Noordewier, De Haan-Manifarges, Urlus and Zalsman in the Saalbau in Frankfurt. It was a moving performance and the audience was very enthusiastic.

Seven years later, the work was performed in a very special context. On 8 July 1919 a manifestation took place in the Concertgebouw in celebration of the end of the First World War. It was an initiative of Diepenbrock and several other members of the League of Neutral Countries, of which he was a member. Immediately after the armistice of 11 November 1918, Diepenbrock started organising a ‘Peace Evening’, at which the Hymne à la Justice (Hymn to Justice) by Albéric Magnard (who had been fusilladed in 1914) and his own Te Deum were to be performed. There were also to be several speeches. The preparations took a lot of time as singers from five different choirs – also from Belgium – were participating. So more or less coincidentally, the Treaty of Versailles had just been signed a week and a half before the Peace Evening. This came as a huge relief for the organisation, as right until the end it was uncertain whether the Germans would indeed sign the peace treaty.

It was a memorable evening. After an introduction, in which the chairman of the Netherlands section of the league sketched the future of a new Europe without war, Evert Cornelis conducted Magnard’s Hymne. This was followed by a long speech. Then the Te Deum was performed under Diepenbrock. According to Matthijs Vermeulen, the trumpet introduction and its poignant dissonants are so in keeping with the time, as an immense liberation. The critic thought Diepenbrock, who was motivated by his intense joy of the end of the war, was exceptionally inspired:

Never had Diepenbrock been seen as the conductor of hundreds of musicians on one stage and as a conductor of fulgurant music that keeps on bursting out with the most fiery sounds, such as his Te Deum. So we did not know that this “artist-philosopher” […] had such a fantastic and forceful gesturing. With such nervous and sharp lines, which attempted to draw every note, even the unwritten ones, in the emptiness of the air, it would also have seemed impossible that the singing and performing masses could be driven to such an orderly result. Diepenbrock invented his Te Deum with rapidly changing tempos, with the most unexpected chiaroscuro of effects and the performing groups appeared to be taking part in a hymnic pilgrimage. He improvised the song of praise as if he was writing it anew. And as improvised as it all sounded within the general context, so true and warm, so compelling were the sound, and the ardour were bursting from the large groups of choir, soloists and orchestra. (BD X:438)

Jaap van Benthem & Ton Braas