RC 106 Die Nacht (“Rings nun ruhet die Stadt”)

  • Hölderlin, Friedrich ()
  • mezzo-soprano and orchestra
  • June 2, 1910 - January 23, 1911
  • duration ca. 15:00

Unlike the other early Romantic German poets whose poems Diepenbrock set to music, Friedrich Hölderlin (1770-1843) is only mentioned in his correspondence when his poetry inspired the composer to write a new work. On 23 June 1910 Diepenbrock told his friend W.G. (Gijs) Hondius van den Broek:

Recently I have made notes for a composition for Alto and orchestra that I hope to write for Durigo on the beautiful elegy Die Nacht (The Night) by Hölderlin. You must know it: Rings nun ruhet die Stadt etc. (All around the city rests, etc.) To me this is very sympathetic Romanticism, magnificent, calm and charming. (BD VI:310)

In a later letter to Willem Kloos, Diepenbrock speaks of the sublime beauty of the poem. (BD VII:274)

Die Nacht is the first out of nine strophes in free verse that together make up the cycle Brot und Wein (Bread and Wine). In the poem Hölderlin evokes the image of a city at nightfall, how daily life winds down and the moon and stars rise – comparable to the atmosphere of the opening of Nietzsche’s Im grossen Schweigen (In the Great Silence, RC 67). In Hölderlin’s idea of the world, which is influenced by Greek mythological and pre-Socratic literature, these elements are chiefly symbols of man’s position in the universe that surrounds him. However, it was in the first place the beautiful language and atmosphere of this verse that appealed to Diepenbrock. The fact that he wanted to restrict himself to this, explains the various liberties Diepenbrock took with the text and the contents of Hölderlin’s 18-line poem.

Music and text

The orchestral introduction starts with a soft timpani roll. Above this, from a low register, a viola develops an ascending melody via the intervals of the minor major seventh chord d-f-a-c#. In m. 4 the double basses join the organ point c# in the timpani and ascending chord progressions (again in a low register) are combined with a lonely, soaring melody in the flute, in which there are three note repetitions. Ten measures later a melody – this time in brilliant major – appears in the high strings that is characterised by a descending opening motive. Throughout the composition this melody sounds every time the text refers to the approaching night.

Then follows an episode that, through its rhythm and its melodic structure, temporarily evokes a feeling of unrest – an atmosphere which is largely created by a persistently strumming mandolin (a continuous semiquaver motion that carries on for seven measures). Only when the melancholic flute melody and the ascending chord progression are repeated, does everything settle down. The opening words “Rings nun ruhet die Stadt” are sung to the motive c#c#eddc#, which shortly before the ‘unrest’ episode had been played as a counterpoint to the flute solo; thus, these words in fact mark the end of the introduction.

Accompanied by a subtle web of voices that alternately refer to the different motives from the orchestral introduction, there follows a vocal description of the subsiding street noise and the driving off by torchlight of the carts, which are empty now that their load of fruit and flowers has been sold. Tired with working, the people go back home; a thoughtful man works out his profit and loss. An orchestral intermezzo, mainly based on the ‘unrest’ motive, calls to mind the busy market: a descending tritone repeated three times in the bassoon and tuba depicts the lowing of oxen. When six measures later everything is peaceful again, the solo violin starts a lyrical development of the descending major melody, accompanied by broken chords in the harp, introducing the accompaniment to the line “Aber ein Saitenspiel tönt fern aus Gärten.” (But string music sounds from distant gardens.) In his music Diepenbrock also subtly frames the question whether it is a lover who plays, or a lonely man reflecting on far-off friends and his youth.

Splashing fountains, symbolised by rushing, alternating, descending and ascending chromatic lines, are replaced by the ringing of bells. To depict this, Diepenbrock uses the same three-note motive with which he portrayed the church bells of Cologne in Vondels vaart naar Agrippine (Vondel’s Voyage to Agrippine, RC 64) and Genoa in Im grossen Schweigen (In Great Silence, RC 67), but this time he combines it with different ostinato-like patterns that also include semitones. This section concludes with the broadly sung phrase that a watchman, heeding the time, calls the hour.

After seven measures of elaboration on the ‘night’ melody, suddenly the wind picks up and the moon appears. Hölderlin’s poem ends – in the version used by Diepenbrock – with the lines:

Sieh! und das Ebenbild unserer Erde, der Mond,
Kommet geheim nun auch, die Schwärmerische, die Nacht kommt,
Voll mit Sternen und wohl wenig bekümmert um uns
Glänzt die Erstaunende dort, die Fremdlingin unter den Menschen
Über Gebirgeshöhn traurig und prächtig herauf.

Look how the moon, like the shadow of our earth,
Also rises stealthily! Rapturously the night comes,
Full of stars and probably a little anxious about us
The astonishing moon shines, the stranger among humans,
Sadly and beautifully over the mountain tops.

After the words “die Nacht kommt” Diepenbrock interrupts the vocal part with a three-measure instrumental reference to the ‘night’ melody, before giving the next line. However, because of the continuous setting of “Voll mit Sternen und wohl wenig bekümmert um uns / Glänzt die Erstaunende dort”, there is now a discrepancy between Hölderlin’s text and Diepenbrock’s music. What Diepenbrock could not know, was that in the definite version of the poem Hölderlin was to write a semicolon after “Kommet geheim nun auch”. After that the poet temporarily changes the subject (“Nacht” again), and only after the words “voll mit Sternen” (as the comma there in the official Hölderlin edition shows)1 does he return to the image of the moon, but now in the manifestation of Selene, the Greek goddess of the moon, who visits earth every evening as a stranger to kiss her dead lover Endymion. The fact that Diepenbrock chose to set the words “Die Fremdlingin unter den Menschen” to the lonely flute melody from the beginning of the orchestral introduction, suggests that he must have been aware of Hölderlin’s import of the text.

On the long sustained final note c# in the voice (on the last syllable of “traurig und prächtig herauf”) the solo trumpet starts a melody depicting the course of the rising moon, which ascends over four measures and ends in an overwhelming A dom7 chord (i.e. a chromatic-third relationship with the tonic). Then the solo violin plays the shining ‘night’ melody once more. After a repetition of the trumpet melody, the composition concludes with ingenious counterpoint in which the melancholic flute melody and the ‘night’ melody come together.


Being the last in the series of orchestral songs that Diepenbrock composed between 1899 and 1911, Die Nacht is a definite musical and compositional highlight. The work stands out because of its suggestive musical language, the apt and colourful melodies the words are set to and the cleverly developed and transparently orchestrated accompaniment of the voice.

The genesis of Die Nacht is connected with the romance between Diepenbrock and Johanna Jongkindt (1882-1945), the young woman who was his muse for many years. On 2 June 1910, after their boat trip to Nieuwendam on the other side of the IJ, he wrote down the first sketch, comprising four and a half of the 18 lines of the vocal section. Not long after that, when Diepenbrock stayed with her in the small town of Zeist from Friday 10 to Saturday 11 June, their intimate relationship started. During that visit he gave her his copy of Hölderlin’s Gedichte (Poems), which he had purchased in December 1895. A week later he wrote: The memory of the paradise of Zeist made me incorporate a few bird calls into the Nacht. (BD VI:307) Mid-July Diepenbrock mentioned his intention to depict the atmosphere of a summer night, the sultriness, fullness, richness in which all kind of daily sounds can still be dimly heard in the introduction. (BD VI:341)

The progress of the work can be followed closely in the correspondence between the lovers. On 16 December 1910 he told Jo that the orchestration of the introduction, the revision of the vocal part and the changes to the mandolin part had been completed. Around the turn of the year, when it was dark early, it was difficult to keep the inspiration coming: “All this makes me get stuck with a work, especially one that takes so much effort as this Nacht.” (BD VII:119) On 7 January 1911 Diepenbrock sent Jo the last section of the piano score for copying. He reached the end of the score on 23 January.

On 14 February 1911 Diepenbrock played his composition to Willem Mengelberg – so he wrote to Jo that same day. The conductor was immediately enthusiastic about the work and wanted to perform it in the near future. The piano score Diepenbrock made, which remained in Jo’s possession, bears the motto “Adspirant aurae in noctem”, a quote from the seventh book of Vergil’s Aeneas. The words are part of the following verses:

Aspirant aurae in noctem nec candida cursus
luna negat, splendet tremulo sub lumine pontus.

The winds blew them along until nightfall, but the pale moon
did not forget them and the sea shone under its twinkling light.

Ilona Durigo (1881-1943), who had been Diepenbrock’s friend ever since performing his hymn for alto Muss immer der Morgen wiederkommen (Must the Morning Always Return, RC 50) in October 1909, gladly accepted that the work was to be dedicated to her. The premiere by the Hungarian alto and the Concertgebouw Orchestra, conducted by Willem Mengelberg, took place in the Centre for Arts and Sciences in The Hague on Saturday evening 14 October 1911. That morning Diepenbrock presented the piece to the orchestra, after which Mengelberg continued the rehearsals. In the evening there was a nervous atmosphere, as the concertmaster Louis Zimmermann, who had run through the solo part at the composer’s home earlier, and the first viola player Herman Meerloo, who had an important part in the opening of the piece, both fell ill. This had a negative effect on the performance.

Next day’s repeat at the matinee in the Amsterdam Concertgebouw went much better. According to plan, it was conducted by Evert Cornelis (1884-1931), as Mengelberg had to travel to Petersburg for a guest performance. Both times Durigo made a huge impression. On 10 December 1911 there was a reprise under Mengelberg, but it was a disappointment, according to an entry in the diary of Diepenbrock’s wife Elisabeth:

“All of us enjoyed hearing the work again, but the performance was not as good as the first. Mengelberg rehearsed far too little and let the orchestra play far too loud, Durigo struggled not to be overshadowed, despite the fact that it has been orchestrated in such a refined manner.” (BD VII: 291-292)

Mengelberg did not perform Die Nacht again in the Netherlands during Diepenbrock’s lifetime. He programmed the work once with the Frankfurt Museum Society, of which he had been the conductor since 1907. Diepenbrock would have liked to attend that performance on 27 February 1914 with the soloist Durigo, but he changed his mind at the last moment because it coincided with Debussy’s visit to Amsterdam for a guest performance with the Concertgebouw Orchestra on 1 March. At this concert he conducted two of his Nocturnes, the Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune (Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun) and the Marche écossaise (Scottish March) and he also played several piano works. After the First World War had broken out, Diepenbrock’s works no longer stood a chance in Germany because of his criticism of the German aggression, which he voiced in polemic articles.

Publication and later performances

In the spring of 1914 Diepenbrock made preparations for the printed editions of Die Nacht and the hymn for alto Muss immer der Morgen wiederkommen (RC 50). The publication of his most important compositions was now within reach, thanks to the money he had received from his friends for his fiftieth birthday in September 1912. The proofs of the piano scores of the two works were ready in August 1914 when all Europe was being mobilised. It was not until 20 August 1915 that Die Nacht could be published. Huge inflation prevented the score from being engraved as well.

The first performance in the Netherlands after 1911 was under Diepenbrock himself on 14 November 1918. He conducted the Concertgebouw Orchestra in a programme with, before the interval, works by Boieldieu, Fauré and Debussy and, after the interval, Die Nacht, the overture De Vogels (The Birds; see RC 139) and the hymn for soprano Gehoben ist der Stein (Uplifted is the Stone, RC 49), sung by Aaltje Noordewier-Reddingius. The alto Johanna Zegers de Beyl (1885-1977) was the soloist in Die Nacht, in the metric translation by Balthazar Verhagen, which Diepenbrock had included in the front of the printed piano score.

After Diepenbrock’s death, Ilona Durigo continued to perform the work regularly; she sang it on 27 March 1924 with the Concertgebouw Orchestra, conducted by Karl Muck. For the programme celebrating her hundredth concert in Amsterdam, on 12 November 1931, as a matter of course.

Durigo selected Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde (Song of the Earth), which she sang together with Jacques Urlus, as well as Diepenbrock’s Die Nacht.

Jaap van Benthem & Ton Braas

1 This interpretation is supported by the punctuation in the earliest transmitted version of Hölderlin’s first strophe titled Die Nacht on p. 90 of the Musen Almanach, 1807.