The premiere of Vondel’s Gijsbrecht van Aemstel in the Amsterdam City Theatre on Tuesday 25 June 1912 – the opening evening of the Dutch Music Festival – was an important event. For director Willem Royaards (1867-1929) and his theatre company N.V. Het Tooneel the new stage setting was a prestigious project. With scenery and costumes by Frits Lensvelt (1886-1945) and Nell Bronger (1878-1935) – the artist couple that was to become closely connected with Royaards’ productions – a simple, stylised mise en scène was created that broke with tradition. The incidental music that Royaards had commissioned Diepenbrock to write for this occasion, was performed by a vocal ensemble consisting of renowned soloists and the Concertgebouw Orchestra, conducted by Willem Mengelberg.
The renewed interest in Vondel in the last quarter of the nineteenth century had led to, among others, the publication of two new editions of the Gijsbrecht van Aemstel, Vondel’s famous tragedy about the city of Amsterdam, modelled on Vergil’s Aeneid: one by Albert Verwey (1865-1937) in 1893 and the other a deluxe edition by De Erven F. Bohn in Haarlem in 1901. Shortly before the turn of the century the way of performing his works, which on the whole had remained realistic – despite the Vondel renaissance –, came under much debate when theatre reforms abroad also struck a chord in the Netherlands. Especially the internationally orientated weekly De Kroniek, which was founded in 1895 and to which Diepenbrock contributed for several years, adopted a critical stance on this topic.
The production of 1912 was the second joint project of Royaards and Diepenbrock (see RC 101). They had both been acquainted with Vondel’s work since their childhood. Diepenbrock had already become familiar with the Gijsbrecht at an early age, as he had regularly heard parts of it being declaimed at his parental home. In September 1892 his fondness of Vondel’s tragedy inspired him to set the Rey van burchtsaeten (Choral Song of the Burghers, RC 28) for mixed choir a cappella. Then in 1893-1895 he also composed the Rey van clarissen (Choral Song of the Poor Clares, RC 30) and the Rey van Amsterdamsche maegden (Choral Song of the Amsterdam Virgins, RC 31) for female choir and orchestra, and the Rey van edelingen (Choral Song of the Noblemen, RC 33) for mixed choir and orchestra.
As a beginning actor, Willem Royaards had taken part in several performances of the Gijsbrecht van Aemstel. After spending several years in Berlin working under the famous director Max Reinhardt (1873-1943), Royaards founded his own theatre company in 1908: N.V. Het Tooneel. Taking Reinhardt’s sensational model performances – among others of Greek tragedies, each time realised by a team of artists – as an example, Royaards hoped to improve the quality of Dutch theatre. After the new company had introduced itself with Vondel’s Adam in ballingschap (Adam in Exile), Royaards wanted to revive the Gijsbrecht tradition which was stuck in a rut. He said he hoped that
the experiment of liberating this urban tragedy from its bad image of tediousness and rhetoric by making it more human, will not run aground. That Diepenbrock’s music will support and add lustre to this Gijsbrecht production, is also a great joy to me, because although I do not take it upon myself to pass judgement on music, hearing the music of the Choral Songs already gave me pleasure years ago, and was also instructive, in the sense that it made me understand how silly it is to claim that in his choral songs of the Gijsbrecht, Vondel did not understand the character of the choral song, and that he violated it. (BD VII:390)
The director thus explained his intentions in a letter to Antoon Derkinderen (1859-1925) ten days before the premiere of 1912, mentioning what he had learnt from listening to Diepenbrock’s separate choral songs. When Diepenbrock was working on compositions back in ’s-Hertogenbosch, he had close contact with this painter. Like the individual Reyen, the incidental music for Gijsbrecht van Aemstel is dedicated to Derkinderen.
Realisation of the new score
The three chorals songs with orchestral accompaniment had already undergone several revisions, each time in an attempt to make the orchestration more adequate.1 Nevertheless, when in mid-December 1911 Royaards put his request – through his wife Jacqueline – to Diepenbrock, the composer did not mind. (BD VII:297). Already on New Year’s Day 1912 Elisabeth Diepenbrock wrote in her diary: “Fons is enthusiastically making a set-up for his Choral Songs for 3 quartets and small orchestra; it has always been the intention that they are to be performed [...].” (BD VII:310) So, despite some initial hesitation based on Royaards’ suggestion to use an ensemble of only seven singers, Diepenbrock almost immediately decided to make a virtue of necessity, the challenge being that he had to rewrite his music for a choir of soloists and 24 musicians, a ‘Bach orchestra’. (BD VII:315) Soon he realised that the new adaptation was very much in line with the series of revisions he had made the previous year of other works, including Im grossen Schweigen (In the Great Silence, RC 67).
Diepenbrock’s motivation to rewrite the choral songs as well, becomes clear from a long letter to Johanna Raphael-Jongkindt of 20 January 1912, in which he wrote about the revisions:
Now a fortunate suggestion by Royaards has prompted me to also rework the choral songs in the same way. I have been busy with it since 9 Jan. […] and I have almost finished the sketches of the first 2 Choral Songs. You have no idea how much it fascinates me to bring that music, which I made with so much passion and which remains dead in the scores, to life now. It is the fifth score I am making of the Choral Songs […] and only now will I fully realise it.
Thanks to Royaards’ commission, Diepenbrock too had become aware of his lifelong connection with Vondel’s Gijsbrecht, as he continued:
While working on the first two Choral Songs, that of the Virgins (G major) and the large-scale one in D major, all those old feelings of the past, not only from when I created the music, but also from the experiences of my childhood days, came back again, and I am pleased that through all the floundering and groping I have at last acquired the technique to reveal the beautiful music that lies within.” (BD VII:314)
Diepenbrock explained that the revision was not only about technique though (even in the last score – the fourth – from 1901 he considered the music
still too much concealed by details and the far too compact and compressed structure of the composition), but also about his sound ideal that had changed over the years. Therefore he not only revised the vocal setting, adapting it to a small ensemble, but also the orchestration. In order to achieve a more transparent sound, he left out the clarinets (except the bass clarinet), bassoons and horns.
Description of the parts
The score Diepenbrock completed on 26 May 1912 comprises seven parts, in which he closely follows Vondel’s tragedy (for a summary of the story, see RC 28). The first four acts are rounded off with a choral song, the fifth ends with the appearance of Archangel Raphael. Three new parts were composed for the production: Prologue (I), Simeon’s lofzang (Canticle of Simeon, V) and a finale (VII). In the above mentioned letter to Johanna Jongkindt, Diepenbrock described how he imagined the first of these new parts:
I wanted to picture the Prologue as the Prophecy of the downfall of Troy: “Sometime the day will come that the godly Troy will be ruined”, from the Iliad [verse 448], elaborated on by Virgil, and as the background of Vondel’s destruction of Amsterdam. (BD VII:314)
With this reference to Homer and Vergil, Diepenbrock, as a classical scholar, demonstrated that he considered Vondel’s tragedy a modern equivalent of the classical tragedy. He gave the prologue a motto from Vergil’s Aeneid (book 2, verse 324), which he notated in the autograph score:
Venit summa dies et ineluctabile tempus (The last day has come and the unavoidable hour).
The three-part prologue opens – Grave, sostenuto maestoso – with an ominous timpani roll, followed by the theme, a solemn melody in parallel sixth chords above a moving bass line, and then a trumpet fanfare. After a drum roll that swells to ff, a variation of the theme is played by the full orchestra. In a letter to his friend W.G. Hondius van den Broek of 4 February 1912, Diepenbrock associated this monumental A section with the Latin “fatum” (fate). The melodies Waar werd oprechter trouw from the Rey van burchtsaeten (Where Can Truer Faithfulness from the Choral Song of the Burghers), in a mild setting, and O Kerstnacht from the Rey van clarissen (O Christmas Eve from the Choral Song of the Poor Clares)
in the bass with counter figures that grow increasingly restless) act as antithesis – in an Andante molto espressivo changing to Agitato –, until the A section
returns as the unrelenting fate, softened somewhat at the end by victory fanfares (symbolising the prophecy by the angel Raphael). (BD VII:322)
Simeon’s lofzang (fourth act) was added to the score as well in 1912. It is the prayer of the Poor Clares and the old bishop Gozewijn – now that they will no doubt be killed by the onrushing enemy – to “depart in peace", as Simeon put it in former times in the temple after having seeing the Christ Child (Luke 2:29-32). Diepenbrock composed this part as a solo for baritone and unison female choir on Thursday evening 25 and Friday evening 26 January.
For the finale of the incidental music Diepenbrock selected three sections of text, which are not sung, but, by way of melodrama, are declaimed with musical accompaniment: the prayer of Brother Peter, introduced by Badeloch’s request to pray on her behalf for the safety of her husband (Peter’s words are framed by a 16-measure cello solo); Raphael’s encouragement to save the body that is in mortal danger; and the end of the fifth act. Diepenbrock already knew in January how he wanted to portray the appearance of the angel:
I would like to use a deep alto voice for that, e.g. Theo Bouwmeester,2 and combine it with soft accompaniment of muted strings and trumpets, ppp Timpani tremolos, Maestoso, yet insinuating, as Melodrama music. (BD VII:314)
The appearance of the archangel is announced by the main theme from the Rey van edelingen, which stands out through the ascending major sixth, in the full orchestra. In that choral song this stately theme (maestoso) represents the trust in God’s providence of the faithful, who, still unaware of the pending danger, head off to church to welcome the first-born Redeemer. In the finale Diepenbrock also uses the opening of the Gregorian Te Deum, thus accentuating the special meaning of Raphael’s message of salvation. A last reference to the fate theme from the Prologue, which is drowned out by triumphant fanfare motives in the trumpets, is followed – Maestoso, energico – by the apotheosis in C major.
Diepenbrock was actively involved in the preparations for the premiere. On 11 June he started practising the choral songs with the orchestra. The next rehearsal with the vocal ensemble brought to light several passages that needed some changes. The nineteen singers (ten women and nine men) who eventually took part in the premiere included well-known Diepenbrock supporters such as Aaltje Noordewier-Reddingius, Pauline de Haan-Manifarges and Gerard Zalsman, who also sang the solo in Simeon’s lofzang. When Diepenbrock played his score on the piano to Willem Mengelberg at the beginning of June, he found that the conductor considered the music “extremely difficult”. (BD VII:385) Nevertheless, after the first orchestral rehearsals Diepenbrock reported positively to his wife:
The orchestra is sublime. On Tuesday evening I rehearsed with them from 8-10. Mengelberg did so on Wednesday morning. He exclaimed: “a modern Bach”. (BD VII:389)
There was a lot of press coverage of the premiere of Royaards new stage production, which lasted over four hours. It was graced by the presence of the royal family and numerous prominent figures. Theatre critic Top Naeff was impressed by the sober mise en scène:
It was a […] devout display, the verse we had forgotten how to listen to, regained its meaning, poignancy and lustre; and this emotion, in strict, fixed lines, in an exceptionally beautiful framework, brought the drama of ruin and salvation to life. There was a dramatic unity in these scenes which had never been comprehended before, now that there was a plan, which formed the basis for everyone’s endeavours, an atmosphere that embraced it all, a fundamental chord to which the rich declamation was tuned throughout the evening.3
However, fitting the choral songs into the mise en scène proved to be problematical. Royaards decided that when it was the turn of the singers, they should stand (in ‘medieval’ costume, but with the score in their hands and in one case even with spectacles) in front of the closed curtains, which completely interrupted the dramatic action. This resulted in a persiflage by Barbarossa (J.C. Schröder), who had attended the dress rehearsal, in the newspaper De Telegraaf . (BD VII:603)
The reactions to the combination Vondel-Diepenbrock were mixed. Composer and conductor Daniël de Lange, who had performed the Rey van burchtsaeten himself in 1900, wrote in the newspaper Het Nieuws van den Dag that he would prefer to hear the music during a concert performance in the Concertgebouw:
It seemed to me that the combination was neither beneficial to the tragedy, nor to Diepenbrock’s music. This music has nothing to do with Vondel’s art. But likewise one could say that Vondel’s art has nothing to do with this music. (BD VII:611)
However, there was a lot of praise for the new short choral song Simeon’s lofzang, which was presented well thanks to the versatile Zalsman, who not only sang but also acted, and the other singers. (In 1914 Diepenbrock made an arrangement of Simeon’s lofzang for baritone and piano, see RC 120.) The critics were almost unanimously positive about Diepenbrock’s use of declamation in the finale. As L. van Gigch wrote in De Telegraaf:
The melodrama, which has been so transparently orchestrated, made an extraordinary impression; it elevated the end of the drama to a level it cannot reach without music. (BD VII:613)
The problems with the melodrama sections that had occurred in 1910 during the performances of Marsyas, of De betooverde bron (Marsyas, or The Enchanted Spring, RC 101), were due to the score not being clear as to where exactly the words should be spoken. Back then this resulted in a lack of coherence between the declamation of the text and the music. Although in the Gijsbrecht score the rhythm of the spoken text is also undefined, for the melodrama in the final part of this incidental music Diepenbrock did aim to achieve exact synchronisation of the spoken text and the music, as we can see from the regular division of the text over the pages of the score and piano score. In 1915, for the performance of the melodrama of Raphael, he defined where every syllable should sound by means of a rhythmic notation in piano score B-1(8). This document – the only time the composer recorded such a fixed rhythm of the speaking voice – was made at the request of the singer Jacoba Repelaer van Driel (1884-1967), who was to perform the role of the archangel in the Gijsbrecht production of 13 April that year.
Soon after the 1912 Dutch Music Festival Diepenbrock and Royaards resumed their collaboration and thus the Gijsbrecht van Aemstel was performed several more times between February 1913 and April 1915. Diepenbrock conducted the production himself and took on financial responsibility for the instrumentalists (a selection of musicians from the Concertgebouw Orchestra) and the singers. (BD VIII:160)
This new series of performances caused a long polemic, after fierce criticism, mainly from literary circles, focussing on Diepenbrock’s sung choral songs. The majority of these criticasters not only found that this type of performance affected the intelligibility of the text, they were also principally opposed to music of any kind in Vondel’s tragedies. Thus, an old discussion was reopened. The performance practice of Gijsbrecht van Aemstel was already a major topic in the first year of publication of the De Kroniek (January 1895); the music for the tragedy (in this case the incidental music by Bernard Zweers, see RC 30) was also criticised.
At the instigation of Diepenbrock (BD VIII:134-137), Balthazar Verhagen published an extensive article in the magazine De Amsterdammer in April 1913 (BD VIII:627-633) to refute the negative criticism on the use of Diepenbrock’s music in the performances, claiming that Vondel did want his choral songs to be sung, as the poet apparently spoke of a
musical piece of choral songs, practiced by a great Orlando, meaning a composer of the calibre of Orlando di Lasso. When in November 1914, after a reprise of the production, once again negative criticism was published, Diepenbrock felt obliged to give a public reaction himself and wrote an article to the editor entitled ‘De Reyen van Gysbrecht, Pro domo mea’. (BD VIII:698-703).
After Diepenbrock’s death, Royaards never performed the Gijsbrecht van Aemstel with his music again. The production of the Gijsbrecht on New Year’s Day 1931 by director (and lead character) Louis Saalborn (1891-1957), based on Royaards’ concept and once again with Diepenbrock’s incidental music, was an homage to the two artists who by then had both died.
1 The last revision dates from 1901. See T. Braas, ‘Ik heb nu eindelijk het orchestreeren zoowat geleerd. Ontwikkeling van de instrumentatie bij Alphons Diepenbrock’, in: ed. A. Annegarn/L.P. Grijp/P. Op de Coul, Harmonie en Perspectief. Zevenendertig bijdragen van Utrechtse musicologen voor Eduard Reeser (Deventer: Sub rosa 1988), 46-61.
2 Theo Bouwmeester (1850-1930) was a famous actress in the Netherlands in those days.
3 Top Naeff, Dramatische Kroniek II (1918-1919), 113.