Chanson d’automne is the first text by Paul Verlaine that Diepenbrock set to music. Over the years eight more were to follow, which shows that of the modern French poets, Diepenbrock felt most attracted to Verlaine. To his friend Charles Smulders, a Belgian composer with whom he often discussed work, Diepenbrock described Verlaine’s poetry – in a letter dated 10 November 1898 – as follows:
Cette poésie [...] exige une certaine monotonie par laquelle se traduit une langueur, ou bien une passion ardente et profonde mais continue. (This poetry [...] requires a certain monotony which expresses a languor, or an ardent and profound, yet continuous passion.)
Diepenbrock’s interest in Verlaine goes back to when he was a student. We may assume that the collections Les poètes maudits (The Accursed Poets, 1884 – with poems by Verlaine, Corbière, Rimbaud and Mallarmé) and Verlaine’s Poèmes saturniens (Saturnian Poems, 1884) were discussed at length among his Amsterdam friends. When Verlaine gave a lecture in Amsterdam on 7 November 1892, during a two-week visit to the Netherlands, Diepenbrock was present. With great curiosity Diepenbrock inquired with his friends about the gathering in The Hague at which Verlaine also spoke. In September 1893 he enjoyed reading Verlaine’s report, which was published under the title Quinze jours en Hollande (Fifteen Days in the Netherlands); he called it “charming and petty”. (BD II:19)
Four years later, on 8 September 1897, Diepenbrock composed his Chanson d’automne (Autumn Song) for the Amsterdamsch Vocal Quartet, consisting of Aaltje Noordewier-Reddingius, Cato Loman, Johan Rogmans and Johannes Messchaert. It was a day after he had attended rehearsals for their (second) concert tour of 26 towns throughout the Netherlands. The programme included Diepenbrock’s Dämmerung (Twilight, RC 7) and the Vijftiende-eeuwsch bruyloftlied (Fifteenth-Century Wedding Song, RC 10). Diepenbrock attended their concerts in Dordrecht (9 September), Amsterdam (9 October) and Zaandam (31 October) and enjoyed the excellent performances of his two works. Unfortunately, after the concert tour the Amsterdamsch Vocal Quartet broke up because of internal disagreements.
It took almost two decades for the conductor of a professional vocal ensemble, Sem Dresden, to include Chanson d’automne in one of his programmes. Diepenbrock was very charmed by the beautiful performance in the Amsterdam Concertgebouw by the Madrigal Society on 24 October 1916. (BD IX:177)
With its concise proportions of only 25 measures, Diepenbrock’s Chanson d’automne is a musical gem. The despondent and disconsolate mood evoked by Verlaine’s poem with short lines is expressed through an elegiac melody and refined harmonies, often with chromatic middle voices. Most remarkable are the rest in the first measure of the tenor part, depicting “sanglots” (sobs), and the momentary F-sharp major on the words “je me souviens” (I remember) in m. 13.