After setting five texts by Novalis to music in 1897-1899 (RC 37, 45, 47, 49 and 50), it took ten years before Diepenbrock used another poem by the German early Romantic poet and philosopher, who died at an early age, as point of departure for a composition: the Weihnachtslied (Christmas Song, RC 107*), a piece comprising more than fifty measures that he worked on in June 1910 and October-November 1911, but did not complete. In that period Novalis regularly came up in Diepenbrock’s correspondence with his friend Johanna Jongkindt.
A year later, Diepenbrock wrote a fourteen-measure sketch in music notebook C-22 for the opening of a setting of Novalis’ Lied von der Mädchen Plagen (Song of the Tormented Girl), a poem from the novel Heinrich von Ofterdingen. This sketch of a vocal part with a chordal piano accompaniment that follows the same rhythmic pattern, is dated: 7 October 1912. Diepenbrock must have had come up with the outline and rhythm of the beginning of the melody earlier, because a variant of the opening lines “Sind wir nicht geplagte Wesen? Ist nicht unser Loos betrübt?” (Are we not tormented beings? Is not our fate sad?) can be found on the top stave of p. 24 in music sketchbook C-16, which had been used in June 1910 for the draft of his symphonic song Die Nacht (The Night, RC 106) and revisions of Marsyas, of De betooverde bron (Marsyas, or The Enchanted Spring, RC 101). There the melody reads:
In the poem girls complain about the strict way their parents try to suppress every wish and each desire of youngsters. They are never allowed to let their hearts speak, and are supposed to hide their excitement and behave nicely. But embracing a boyfriend – it cannot be sinful to think about that? Thoughts are free. This Lied von der Mädchen Plagen is delivered in chapter 6 of Novalis’ novel by a sly old man to an audience of mainly young people. Afterwards the girls blush and snigger, because they fully recognise the depicted feelings.
Diepenbrock’s choice of text is remarkable, as until then he had only set purely spiritual poems by Novalis to music and the subject is different from that of all his other vocal works. Novalis’ Heinrich von Ofterdingen (1800) is an early Romantic answer to Goethe’s Bildungsroman Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre (Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship, 1795/96). Poetry forms a recurring theme in the fictional history of the main character, a legendary 13th-century singer, whose development culminated in the mystic certainty of being in divine harmony. Johanna Jongkindt could lose herself entirely in the story, as we can tell from a letter of 25 August 1910, in which she quotes two strophes of a poem from the second part of the novel. (BD VI:381)
When in September 1912 Johanna arranged to meet Diepenbrock for the first time in ages (she was married by then), she asked him to bring a French translation of Novalis. (BD VIII:18) No doubt they discussed their favourite poet at their rendezvous on the 24th of that month. In that context, Diepenbrock’s attempt to write a song on a text by Novalis two weeks later, is not surprising. Johanna was rebuffed by many members of her family for maintaining her friendship with Diepenbrock; there were rumours that they had run off together! Possibly the playful tone in which Novalis questioned bourgeois morality in the Lied von der Mädchen Plagen, appealed to her.