At the end of the life of his mother, Joanna Kuytenbrouwer (1833-1904), Diepenbrock read to her from a collection of novellas Portretten van Vondel (Portraits of Vondel, 1876) by the writer, literature historian and Catholic polemist J.A. Alberdingk Thijm (1820-1889), to whom she was related. In earlier years the author had dedicated one of his stories and several poems to his second cousin because of her love for her birthplace.
In Bedevaart naar Agrippine (Voyage to Agrippine) from this collection Alberdingk Thijm describes an (apocryphal) journey from Amsterdam to Cologne (Agrippina Colonna) that the ancient poet Joost van den Vondel (1587-1679) made with several relatives to celebrate the wedding of a family member in the house where he was born. At the festive dinner Vondel recites a poem in which he compares Cologne with Amsterdam, quotes various legends about the conversion of Cologne and then narrates a remarkable account. In one of the past nights his mother appeared to him in a dream. Long ago she had a vision in that same room after the birth of her son in which two angels predicted the poetic talents of her newly-born Joost. When the poet awoke from a restless sleep, he discovered that two young girls, his granddaughter and the daughter of his host, had kept watch over him. They immediately reminded him of the two angels which had visited his mother.
This poem, the words of which Alberdingk Thijm puts into Vondel’s mouth, formed the basis for Diepenbrock’s symphonic song Vondels vaart naar Agrippine (Vondel’s Voyage to Agrippine). The motive with which the orchestral introduction opens depicts how the city of Cologne looms up in front of the company. Then the bells begin to ring (a musical structure built on a pattern of three ascending or descending notes). A passionate melody that opens several times with a big upward leap suggests the ancient poet’s emotions at seeing his birthplace again, leading to the opening lines:
Zo kom ik dan aan d’avond van mijn leven
En eer mijn zon voorgoed in ’t westen daelt,
Om Keulen’s kaay verschuldigd eer te geven
Van d’Aemstel naer den Rhijn gedwaeld.
(Thus I come in the evening of my life
And before my sun sets forever in the west,
To pay due honour to the quay of Cologne
Having wandered from the Amstel to the Rhine.)
Then the Cologne motive with which the work opened is heard again; it is repeated as a refrain throughout the composition. Where the text refers to the city of Amsterdam, Diepenbrock quotes a short section from one of his earlier compositions, the Rey van Amsterdamsche maegden (Choral Song of the Amsterdam Virgins, RC 31) from Vondel’s Gijsbrecht van Aemstel: the melody accompanying the words “Der schoon’ en wijdvermaerde stad” (The beautiful and far-famed city). When the miraculous budding of St Peter’s rod is mentioned – that, according to legend, Maternus, the first bishop of Cologne, had brought with him from Rome – the composer refers to the Gregorian hymn Iste confessor.
With these musical elements Diepenbrock composed an accompaniment of subtle and inspired music that effortlessly adapts to the various situations and emotions in the text. Later, in a letter to his friend W.G. Hondius van den Broek, Diepenbrock commented on the composition process that
the opportunity the poem gave me to glorify historical traditions I cherish aroused in him the desire to sing the praises of the poem, rather than set it to music. (BD IV:207) This is why he wrote an extensive orchestral introduction and postlude, of which, according to Hondius, the musical depth surpasses the power of expression of Thijm’s verses by far.
Diepenbrock considered the symphonic song an ode to his mother: “Thanks to her we were already initiated into the beauty and greatness of Amsterdam as children.” (BD IV:207) After her death on 25 August 1904 – so he notated in the score – he dedicated his composition to her memory.
Performances and radical revisions
Meanwhile the work had been premiered by Johannes Messchaert and the Concertgebouw Orchestra conducted by Willem Mengelberg on 23 March 1904 (and repeated the following day). Gerard Zalsman sang a rerun in March 1905 – this time with five concerts in different towns. Although the music was received well at these initial performances, Diepenbrock started to feel that the length of the introduction and postlude was out of proportion. This led him to reduce the work by as many as 69 measures in December 1907. He also critically reviewed the orchestration:
Because of the weakness of the text the musical part needs to be technically first class. I used to cover this up with the orchestration, but in the long run this is not an effective means, especially as the singer cannot keep it up. (BD VI:82)
On 15 April 1909 the abbreviated version was performed by Jan Reder and the Concertgebouw Orchestra that was conducted by Mengelberg, but had been prepared for the concert during a rehearsal under the composer himself.
The incentive for another, far more radical revision was when the young baritone Jac. Ph. Caro sang through the work at Diepenbrock’s home in the summer of 1913. Elisabeth commented on this in her diary:
The work really moved us, it contains some lengthiness and sentimentalities, but the melodic flow is so broad and thriving. (BD VIII:204) Initially Diepenbrock considered transposing some lines so they would suit the range of the voice better, but this soon turned into a total revision of the score with large cuts and a new orchestration. Having worked intensively on it from 4 to 19 August, Diepenbrock put aside the score in order to complete his last symphonic song Lydische nacht (Lydian Night, RC 118), which he had started in May of that same year. At the end of January 1914 he took up Vondels vaart naar Agrippine again and he completed the piece on 17 March.
On 11 July 1915 the revised version was performed by Caro and the Concertgebouw Orchestra conducted by Evert Cornelis as part of a historical cycle.
Jaap van Benthem & Ton Braas