After the successful setting of Baudelaire’s Les chats (The Cats, RC 68) in February 1906, Diepenbrock told Johanna Jongkindt he also intended to set Recueillement (Contemplation) and Les hiboux (The Owls) to music. (BD V:104) His plans for Les hiboux never materialised, as he later came to the conclusion:
That poem about the owls cannot be turned into music. At least, I cannot imagine it being sung. (BD VII:237) However, in the summer of 1907 the other sonnet eventually inspired him to compose a song that can be considered one of the highlights of his oeuvre.
It took Diepenbrock two weeks to compose Recueillement – the earliest manuscript is dated 3-17 July 1907 – with the voice of the Belgian alto Gabrielle Zimmer-Derscheid (1875-1965) in mind. In March he had stayed with Mr and Mrs Zimmer when he was in Brussels for a performance of Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande. Right from the beginning it was Diepenbrock’s intention to orchestrate the song, as we can read in his letter to W.G. Hondius van den Broek of 8 August, the day he completed the score:
Recently I have set a beautiful poem by Baudelaire, Recueillement, to music that concludes with “Entends, ma chère, entends la douce nuit qui marche” (Listen, my dearest, listen to the soft night approaching), for Contra-alto and Orchestra. I will play it to you sometime. It also has a piano accompaniment. I think you’ll like it. (BD V:408)
Baudelaire frequently came up in the correspondence between Diepenbrock and Hondius van den Broek. Diepenbrock also shared his love for this poet, whom he classed as one of
those geniuses such as Villiers de l’Isle Adam, Verlaine, Berlioz and Wagner, with Johanna Jongkindt. (BD VIII:182)
The poem is very melancholy. Its subject is “ma Douleur” (my Grief), the inner pain that is addressed as a beloved: “Sois sage ... et tiens-toi plus tranquille” (Be sensible ... and remain calm). For the evening is already falling and a gloomy atmosphere envelops the city, bringing peace to some and anxiety to others. Give me your hand, while the vulgar masses, servilely submitting themselves to the scourge of Pleasure, go to gather Remorse; come here, far away from them. The scene – as we find out in the tercets – is Paris at night, more specifically the Île de la Cité. The poet evokes the image of the sun setting over the River Seine, framed by the buttresses of the Notre Dame: See how bygone years in old gowns lean over the balconies of heaven; how Regret rises with a smile from the depths of the water; how the dying Sun falls asleep under an arch. And listen, my dearest, how – as a long, trailing shroud – the soft Night draws near from the East.
Noteworthy is the floating character at the beginning of the song, which is not only created by the motive with which Diepenbrock lets the piano tentatively find its way in the introduction, but also by the lingering avoidance of the tonic or its triad. That chord is only played after sixteen broad measures (Assai lento), when the voice has already arrived at the third line. Characteristic are the chords that fan out from low to high in mm. 2, 6 and 12, which reappear several more times.
In general the piano part is colourful, orchestral and varied. Sometimes the texture changes per line, like when in m. 14 a long spun out melody starts in the right hand over an accompaniment of broken chords, which is replaced three measures later, on the words “Une atmosphère obscure enveloppe la ville” (A dark atmosphere shrouds the town), by a movement of quaver triplets in parallel sixths and thirds combined with a chromatic countermelody in crotchets in the left hand. However, almost the whole second strophe is consistent in character, with a snappy repeated motive in the middle register (to be played p) that depicts the curse of permanently pursuing Pleasure. This section is in the key of g minor and modulates to f minor for the text “Vois se pencher les défuntes années” (See the deceased years recline). Characteristic of the harmonic flexibility and richness is the way E major is reached before the text “Le soleil moribond” (The moribund sun).
Baritone Gerard Zalsman (1871-1949) immediately embraced Diepenbrock’s composition. Accompanied by his first wife Marie Landré, he premiered the piano version of Recueillement in the concert hall De Kroon in Haarlem on 19 October 1907 at a concert by the Zalsman-Quartet. The programme also featured Diepenbrock’s Rey van burchtsaeten (Choral Song of the Burghers, RC 28) and Den uil (The Owl, RC 56).
On 5 October 1910 the song was published by A.A. Noske in Middelburg together with Der Abend (The Evening, RC 90) and Puisque l’aube grandit (Since Dawn Awoke, RC 97). It was abridged by two measures (to avoid text repetition) and several small changes were made.1
Pauline de Haan-Manifarges (1872-1954) was an exceptional interpreter of Recueillement. After her performance with the pianist A.B.H. (Anton) Verhey (1871-1924) in the Recital Hall of the Amsterdam Concertgebouw on 16 March 1912, Diepenbrock thanked her with the words:
Thus performed, the song must stir and affect everyone who does not have a heart of stone and understands the text [...]. Such a soulful surrender to the text and the music convinces and softens the heart of people who are not entirely reluctant. And that means most of them. (BD VII:340-341)
After this performance the critic L. van Gigch concluded about the composition:
Sonorous and deeply glowing, the sonnet by Baudelaire has received an equal musical expression. The prelude and postlude masterly depict the sultry, yet peaceful nocturnal atmosphere, and each detail, while sometimes even forgetting the broad outline, has an exceptional depth of thought. (BD VII:588-589)
Berthe Seroen (1882-1957) and Evert Cornelis (1884-1931) also added Recueillement to their repertory, performing the song at a charity concert for the Serbian Red Cross on 22 March 1916.
In January 1920 Diepenbrock made a transcription in f minor for the soprano Frieda Mooy, who – being thirty years younger than him – had imposed herself on him and for whose charm, joie de vivre and beauty he was briefly susceptible.
1 See Critical Notes in Complete Songs Vol. 5, 27-29.