On 19 August 1908, three days after noting down his setting of Goethe’s Gleich zu Gleich (Like to Like, RC 85), Diepenbrock drafted the outlines of Wandrers Nachtlied (Wanderer’s Night Song), which was also intended for Gerard Zalsman’s vocal quartet, on the next three pages (pp. 18-20) of music notebook C-6. On that same day he turned these ideas into a complete 31-measure setting in the key of F major (pp. 21 to 27). The autograph bears traces of a great many erasions and corrections. On 9 October Diepenbrock made neat copy B-11(6) in the key of G major. This version occasionally has a different harmonic progression. It contains 40 measures, as the text is repeated in three places.
The Zalsman Quartet premiered this version of Diepenbrock’s Wandrers Nachtlied in The Hague on 20 October 1908, together with Gleich zu Gleich. It was not until later performances that year that the quality of the delicate and – due to the harmonies – demanding piece started to come into its own. Critic Willem Landré finally concluded:
“One has to be a Diepenbrock to be able to turn a text that has been set to music so often, such as Goethe’s Wand’rers Nachtlied, into such a beautiful atmospheric piece.” (BD VI:429)
Diepenbrock’s correspondence with his friend W.G. Hondius van den Broek of September 1908 shows some disappointment over the fact that the four singers put so little effort into the finishing touches:
"Things are done with such Dutch amiability, and they do not have a true understanding of ‘slogging oneself’, as Messchaert used to have with his quartet." (BD VI:13)
Especially the soprano fell well short with her intonation as well as her diction. Therefore Diepenbrock decided to simplify the introduction. The original opening
of which Hondius had written that he feared that
the entry of the soprano would somewhat disturb the peace with its fast movement (BD VI:16), was changed into a straightforward
according to the correction in semi autograph B-22.
“Everything was accomplished”
On 24 October 1916 Sem Dresden (1881-1957) and his Madrigal Society gave a beautiful performance in the Recital Hall of the Amsterdam Concertgebouw of Diepenbrock’s Chanson d’automne (Autumn Song, RC 38) and De groote hond en de kleine kat (The Large Dog and the Small Cat, RC 63). The composer was very complimentary:
Everything was accomplished, without exaggeration. (BD IX:177) Most likely it was due to Dresden’s interest in these choral works (in the previous season he had already presented Auf dem See (On the Lake, RC 87), Dämmerung (Twilight, RC 7) and Den uil (The Owl, RC 56)) that Diepenbrock started a final revision of Wandrers Nachtlied two months later, on 29 December 1916. In manuscript B-12(10) he condensed the work on Goethe’s aphoristic poem to a mere 21 measures. On 31 December, via an alternative version in sketchbook C-31 (on the inside of the cover) with the conclusion I – IV minor-major 7 – I, he came up with the fascinating conclusion that draws on the thirds relationship between C major and E major.
On 12 May 1917 Dresden and his vocal ensemble performed Wandrers Nachtlied, together with the Stabat mater speciosa (RC 35), once again in the Recital Hall of the Concertgebouw. Matthijs Vermeulen reported in the newspaper De Telegraaf:
The exceptional virtuosity with which the difficulties of Wandrers Nachtlied (Über allen Gipfeln ist Ruh - Over all summits is peace), one of Diepenbrock’s latest works that evokes the dying sonority and the melancholy of autumn, were overcome, was amazing. (BD IX:568)
After the publication of Wandrers Nachtlied in 1923, this musical gem became one of Diepenbrock’s most frequently performed choral works.