RC 30 Rey van clarissen (“O Kerstnacht, schooner dan de dagen”)

  • Vondel, Joost van den
  • female choir and orchestra
  • 1893-06-04 00:00:00.0 - 1893-07-07 00:00:00.0 | revised 1901-07-01 00:00:00.0 - 1901-07-31 00:00:00.0
  • duration 9:00

While Diepenbrock was setting Vondel’s Rey van burchtsaeten (Choral Song of the Burghers, RC 28) for mixed choir a cappella to music in the autumn of 1892, progress was being made with the rebuilding of the new City Theatre on the Leidseplein in Amsterdam, on the place where the original building of 1774 had burnt down on 20 February 1890. At the same time the publisher De Erven F. Bohn in Haarlem was making preparations for a luxury edition of Vondel’s Gijsbrecht van Aemstel. It was to include an introductory study by the initiator Leo Simons (1862-1932), illustrations by Antoon Derkinderen (1859-1925), a series of designs for stage sets by H.P. Berlage (1856-1934) and the piano score of the incidental music (prologue, choral songs, interludes and postlude) by Bernard Zweers (1854-1924). Diepenbrock was kept up to date with how the project was getting on by his friend Derkinderen. During a visit on 4 June 1893, Derkinderen showed him not only drawings of his own designs, but also Zweers’ music. Looking through the simple musical setting, in which Zweers had converted the feet into one stereotype metre, caused a strong reaction in Diepenbrock and immediately he came up with all kinds of ideas for a setting of the choral songs of his own.

A week later Zweers told Diepenbrock that, only after persistent insistence of Simons, he had been persuaded to set the choral songs to music as well; as a symphonist he did not consider himself the right person for the job. The following day Diepenbrock asked Derkinderen whether he would be able to persuade the publisher’s director J.K. Tadema to see if Zweers would be prepared to abandon the vocal music for the publication; it would be in Zweers’ own interest: At any rate, he is to expect that many of the more sophisticated audience will consider his choral songs ridiculous. Diepenbrock continued:

This week I have noticed how much I need a trigger to work. I was not commissioned to write the Choral Songs, but only because I was ashamed of the music being so inferior to the poetry, I immediately […] set to work.

In no time he almost finished the Rey van clarissen (Choral Song of the Poor Clares) as well as the Rey van Amsterdamsche maegden (Choral Song of the Amsterdam Virgins, RC 31) – the last score, which he characterized as dynamic and rhythmic, still missing part of the accompaniment. About the Rey van clarissen he said: The timbre of Christmas Eve is entirely different. Anyhow, it has the style such a thing should have and that is the main thing. (BD I:465-466)

The melody of the words

Based on various data, it can be deduced that Diepenbrock must have started both compositions on 4 June. Within a month and a half he completed his Rey van clarissen (Choral Song of the Poor Clares) and his Rey van Amsterdamsche maegden (RC 31), on 7 and 18 July 1893 respectively, according to the date on the piano score A-12, which Diepenbrock made at the end of 1895 (neither of the original scores have been transmitted). When compiling the choral songs for the edition of the complete incidental music for the Gijsbrecht van Aemstel in 1912, Diepenbrock added a note to both that the composition dates from July 1893.

In the autumn of 1893 Derkinderen, who thought it would be impossible to change the approach to the Gijsbrecht project, suggested to Tadema that Diepenbrock’s choral songs should be published separately – a plan the publisher discussed soon afterwards with the composer. However, Diepenbrock could only submit the material for assessment after it had been returned by Antoon Averkamp, who was to premiere the Rey van burchtsaeten on 30 May 1894. After this performance nothing more was said about the choral songs by Diepenbrock for over a year.

Meanwhile, on the occasion of the opening of the new City Theatre in Amsterdam on 16 January 1895, the Gijsbrecht van Aemstel was performed by the Koninklijke Vereeniging Het Nederlandsch Tooneel, with the prologues and choral songs by Bernard Zweers. Diepenbrock was present and gave his opinion in De Kroniek, a new weekly for social culture and literature for which he was to write articles for several years. Diepenbrock’s comments on Zweers’ approach convey much about his own ideas:

Nevertheless it remains a fact that this music was not written based on the melody of the words, but that, quite the reverse, it detracts by its nature from the strophic context and the rhythmic character of the lyrical verses […]. Because of this, one cannot hear that the Rey van Amsterdamsche Maegden is a victory song of the highest intoned accent, and the epic-visionary aspect of the Christmas Eve choral song has been lost due to the character of the composition that is sometimes popular and simple, sometimes modern and dramatic. (VG:85)

It is clear from this that Diepenbrock envisaged a different approach to Vondel’s text. A question he first of all seems to ask himself is:

To use a modern orchestra with its endless richness of sound effects during a performance of Vondel’s work without creating disharmony – is that actually possible? (VG:86)

Despite his fundamental criticism, Diepenbrock visited Zweers in March that year to ask whether he would teach him. Zweers agreed, on condition that he would not be paid for it. During their meetings, he showed many signs of regard, almost veneration, which regularly embarrassed Diepenbrock.

Zweers himself took the initiative to recommend the publication of Diepenbrock’s choral songs to Tadema. Encouraged by this, on 3 September 1895 Diepenbrock started writing the music for the text that he had not yet set to music: the Rey van edelingen (Choral Song of the Noblemen) from the second act (see RC 33). Before discussing the Rey van clarissen any further, the history of all four choral songs needs to be examined.

Printed edition and premiere

Diepenbrock completed the piano score of the Rey van edelingen on 30 September 1895, that of the Rey van Amsterdamsche maegden on 3 December and that of the Rey van clarissen on 11 December. Then the production of the edition could begin. After the composer had made several minor and major musical improvements in the proofs, the printed edition of the piano score of the Vier Reizangen uit Gijsbrecht van Aemstel (Four Choral Songs from Gijsbrecht van Aemstel) was published by De Erven F. Bohn in Haarlem on 13 May 1896.

Shortly afterwards, on 1 June, Diepenbrock completed the orchestration of the Rey van clarissen. Three weeks later the revised score of the Rey van Amsterdamsche maegden, now with full orchestral accompaniment, was ready. After a trip to Italy with a close friend (the journey home took them through Bayreuth, where they attended a performance of Das Rheingold), Diepenbrock continued his work. Before the end of August the orchestration of the Rey van edelingen was finished.

Both Smulders and Zweers criticised Diepenbrock’s orchestrations. During the Christmas holidays he had the opportunity to discuss them at length with Smulders in Liège. The comments prompted him to rewrite the scores of all three choral songs, which he completed on 16 April (Virgins), 24 May (Noblemen) and 10 June 1897 (Poor Clares). However, while he was revising the orchestration again, an unexpected opportunity arose: on the initiative of Tadema, the Haarlem department of the Maatschappij tot Bevordering der Toonkunst (Society for the Stimulation of Music) was considering a performance of the work in the season to come.

On 27 April 1898 the three works were premiered in the Concert Hall of the Sociëteit “Vereeniging” in Haarlem with the Concertgebouw Orchestra conducted by Willem Robert (1848-1914). Like the first performance of the a cappella choral song in 1894, it was a huge disillusion. As Diepenbrock wrote to Smulders, there had only been one joint rehearsal with the orchestra, the acoustics were abominable, the music was too difficult for the choir and Robert was lacking in “affinité spirituelle” (spiritual affinity). On top of that, he concluded:

It is curious how much of the orchestra was lost. I do not know what caused this, I need to hear it again in a better concert hall. (BD III:37)

So once more Diepenbrock had doubts about his orchestration, despite the optimism he had voiced at the end of March: Recently I have revised my score so thoroughly that I have no qualms about it. (BD III:31) Having become uncertain because he had missed so many details in the orchestra, on 29 July he sent the score to the very experienced composer-conductor Richard Hol (1825-1904 ) for assessment. However, we do not know his response.

Text and music of the Rey van clarissen

The Rey van clarissen comprises eight six-line strophes, which – like the Rey van Amsterdamsche maegden and the Rey van edelingen (RC 33) – are all tetrameters. While Zweers set the verses in a stereotype rhythm, Diepenbrock provided variation. For example, he starts the third and fourth line of the opening strophe thetically, in other words on the first beat. In the sixth line, “Hoe schel die in zijn ooren klinkt” (How piercing it sounds to his ears), two accents follow each other immediately against the metre of the verse. So the musical diction follows the meaning of the words.

As we have seen above, Diepenbrock called the contents of this choral song epic-visionary. At the end of the third act of the Gijsbrecht van Aemstel (for a synopsis, see RC 28), the nuns allude to the pending danger that Christmas Eve is connected with: the murder of children in Bethlehem, which King Herod was to order after the birth of Christ. The misery caused by this evil deed is vividly depicted by the nuns. Thus, they point ahead to their own bloody end in the fourth act. The comfort they bring the wandering mothers of Bethlehem, at the same time means the acceptance of the horrific fate that awaits themselves.

The melancholy theme in the Dorian mode with which Diepenbrock opens the first and second strophe, returns in the seventh strophe when a comparison is made to the scythe cutting ears of corn when mowing the wheat. Shortly after that there is word painting in the line “Wanneer het stormt in ’t wilde woud” (When it storms in the wild woods): as a bolt of lightning the clarinet flashes through the registers from high to low.

This is one of the passages of which Diepenbrock refined the orchestration over the years. In both his score of 1896 (completed on 1 June) and that of 1897 (dated April – 10 June), in the measures preceding the clarinet part, there is a continuous triplet movement in the high register that diminishes the lightning effect on the moment supreme. The version of 1901 has the clarinet appearing out of mid-air. Other tendencies in successive orchestrations are the thinning out of the orchestral sound by a more moderate use of the so-called ‘loud brass’ and the increase of colour contrasts between the different groups of instruments, e.g. by omitting the strings (especially the high ones) more often or by creating more diversity in the use of registers.

Diepenbrock never had the chance to enjoy the fruits of all the care and effort he put into the third orchestration of his Rey van clarissen, as after the disappointing premiere this work was never executed again by a good choir. It was not until June 1912 that this choral song was performed again, this time by a small ensemble, in the context of a complete production of Vondel’s Gijsbrecht van Aemstel at the Dutch Music Festival, for which the composer made an entirely new score (see RC 108). For this occasion he not only drastically cut back the orchestral parts, but he also made several changes to the vocal setting.

Ton Braas