RC 47 Abendmahlshymne “Wenige wissen das Geheimnis der Liebe”

  • Novalis
  • soprano or tenor and organ
  • November 15, 1898 - December 9, 1898 | revised November 15, 1916
  • duration ca. 8:30

Wenige wissen das Geheimnis der Liebe (Few Know the Secret of Love) is the second of the Geistliche Lieder (Sacred Songs) from the eponymous collection by Novalis that Diepenbrock composed in the autumn of 1898. Unlike most poems from this collection, this hymn is remarkably rich in metaphors often with a blend of erotic feelings and mysticism forasmuch as the hunger and thirst for human love is linked to the eating and drinking of the bread and wine during Holy Communion.1 Diepenbrock omitted eight lines of Novalis’ text:

Einst ist alles Leib,
Ein Leib,
In himmlischem Blute
Schwimmt das selige Paar.
O! daß das Weltmeer
Schon erröthete,
Und in duftiges Fleisch
Aufquölle der Fels!
Once all is flesh,
One flesh,
In heavenly blood
Swims the blessed couple.
O! May the ocean
And in fragrant skin
Upraise the rock!

He consulted the theologian and philosopher J.D. Bierens de Haan about the meaning of this passage, as we can see from his answer of 11 December 1898 with an in-depth discourse on the topic. (BD III:89-90)

Diepenbrock’s setting for soprano and organ is through-composed. It has an introduction and several intermezzos for organ, which has more than just an accompanying role in this work. The main theme of the voice of which the contours are presented in the introduction, has the combination of binary and ternary rhythms that Diepenbrock often uses. Novalis’ image rich and “darkly-glowing words”,2 which inspired Diepenbrock to illustrate the text musically, are depicted by the chromatic organ part that is permeated with altered chords in a fluctuating tempo. The void caused by the omitted lines after the question “Wer kan sagen, daß er das Blut versteht?” (Who can say whether he understands the blood?) is filled by an impassioned organ passage (Più con moto, accel. poco a pocomolto cresc. – allarg.), until the soprano starts the second half of the hymn with the sentence “Nie endet das süße Mahl” (Never the sweet meal ends).

Like the Geistliches Lied “Wenn ich ihn nur habe” (If Only I Have Him, RC 45), Wenige wissen was written for and dedicated to Aaltje Noordewier-Reddingius. She was meant to present both songs in November 1899 at a concert in the St Peter’s Church in Utrecht. However, only Wenn ich ihn nur habe was performed, as for a long time Noordewier did not want to sing Wenige wissen because she had an aversion to the text “that was not sympathetic to her”. (BD III: 431) Later Diepenbrock remarked: “I can only guess her objections, I do not know them for certain.” (BD IV:92)

Written with a French Romantic organ in mind

Wenige wissen das Geheimnis der Liebe was performed for the first time by the tenor Jos. Tijssen (who had taken part in a performance of several of Diepenbrock’s a cappella works on 2 February 1900) in the St Steven’s Church in Nijmegen on 19 July 1902. The composer was mildly enthusiastic about the concert in Nijmegen: “He sang it beautifully, it could have been even more beautiful, but the organist and the organ (both wild donkeys)3 did not cooperate.” (BD III:431) Diepenbrock thought organist W. de Vries’ playing was “incredibly rigid”. (BD III:439) His remark about the eighteenth-century organ (built by Ludwig König) is not strange, considering Diepenbrock had a French Romantic organ in mind for the accompaniment of the Geistliche Lieder. In 1905 he wrote in a letter in which he refers to the organ parts of his Missa (RC 27) and Wenige wissen: These things can only be played on those French organs with those fine Gamba and lingual stops, not on those old howling and bellowing organs. (BD IV:425)

After the concert in Nijmegen Diepenbrock’s friend W.G. Hondius van den Broek expressed his surprise that the section of the text of Wenige wissen that was crucial to him had been omitted: The part of the Hymn you did not set to music has struck me. I always thought the desire to express the spiritual so strongly through the material was very characteristic of the poem as a whole. Do you consider this desire too strong in the lines that have not been set to music? (BD III:436)

Whether or not Diepenbrock ever answered that question, can’t be found in his correspondence. In any case, this performance would have encouraged him to go back to Wenige wissen and orchestrate it in the autumn of 1902 (see RC 58).

An ecstatic miracle

In later years Aaltje Noordewier overcame her objections against the text and Wenige wissen das Geheimnis der Liebe became one of her favourite songs. In 1916 Diepenbrock made a copy for her, in which the song – now entitled Abendmahlshymne (Hymn of the Last Supper) – was notated a semitone lower and the organ postlude has been revised. During a national tour with the organist Anton Verhey in the autumn of 1918 she even sang the hymn 19 times, alongside an organ arrangement of Mahler’s song Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen (I Am Lost to the World, RC 133), which Diepenbrock made in 1916. After the concert in Utrecht of 26 September, the young critic J.S. Brandts Buys was moved by Wenige wissen:

This song by Diepenbrock is an ecstatic miracle. When reading the text a poor sceptic does not know whether he should consider it sublime, or actually down-to-earth. [...] But when Diepenbrock himself appears to float up and down in his melody, as a wonderful, amorous, holy figure of a monk, a pater Extaticus floating between heaven and earth, then a poor sceptic realises that between heaven and earth and in this murmuring verse there is a wealth of mystic rapture he himself had never dreamt of. (BD X:409)

Désirée Staverman

1 Ton Braas in CD booklet of Memorare (KRO CD 94009).

2 A characteristic of Novalis’ use of language given by Diepenbrock in his article “Melodie en Gedachte, of de muziek in de intellectueele evolutie” from 1891-1892 (see VG:31).

3 Here Diepenbrock used the Greek word “onagroi”.